Jagraj (name changed) was only a 6-year-old when he was introduced to gutka by some of the older boys in his village, and by the time he was 13, he had started to consume it regularly.
While at first, he did it only because he thought the older boys would take him into their fold, it soon became a habit. Life went on, till a check-up at a health camp in his village revealed that he had oral cancer.
While this is the story of Jagraj, there are so many others like him who go through a similar fate.
Dr Sumedha Kushwaha, a dentist by qualification, has been working with addicts and helping them overcome their habit and also spread awareness about the ill effects of all such substance abuse.
In this exclusive interview with The Better India (TBI), she tells us how her organisation Aim To Terminate Tobacco and Cancer (ATTAC) came into being, how she helps addicts and simple ways in which you can give up smoking.
Dr Kushwaha’s background
Dr Kushwaha enrolled in a dental college and pursued a BDS and MDS degree in Public Health Dentistry from ITS Dental College, in Delhi/NCR in 2007 and begins with recollecting those days.
“The number of pre-cancerous patients that I have seen in the OPD is a mind-boggling number.”
“The entire thrust of all we learnt was about cancer. In a majority of cases, we found that the cause for it was the consumption of tobacco.”
This was perhaps where the idea of starting something to help addicts, came to her.
“While there are various awareness programmes about the ill-effects of tobacco, a large section of people who are addicts, have no means of letting go of their addiction, and I wanted to do something about it,” she says.
The patient who started it all
“I was at a camp where I met a 13-year-old who had oral cancer. He was unable to even open his mouth and seeing him in so much pain truly broke something in me.”
She was especially disheartened to see that these children were all oblivious to the fact that the consumption of gutka could cause the dreaded disease.
“That was the kind of ignorance that I wanted to fight. Seeing the youth throw their life away in this way was one of the biggest reasons why I decided to become a trained counsellor,” she said.
With the intent of making a difference, Dr Kushwaha joined a hospital of good repute for her training.
“The money that was being charged per session was rather steep. However, the patients were mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, and it was infeasible to expect them to pay such a steep amount of money for this purpose,” she says.
Given that her training was not in counselling, she mentions training for it in the hospital he was working at. She continued working with various NGO’s that worked in the space of oral health and early cancer detection and awareness.
“Despite the time and energy that we put in many times the patient would go back to their old ways, and that would set the whole process back a few steps. These are frustrations that come with the job, and over the years one learns to deal with it,” she recalls.
Recollecting the time that she spent being a part of the medical camps in villages, as part of her college curriculum, she says, “Some villages were covered by the programme and some that were not, so my friends and I started going to the latter villages. We (some of my course mates and then-boyfriend, now-husband) would dump all the bare essentials, in terms of medical equipment and go from one village to another, conducting camps. I would take up the job of speaking to people and creating awareness about the various pitfalls of chewing tobacco and also speak about the various health issue that it would create, while the others would take charge of the physical examination,” she adds.
Dr Kushwaha’s agenda was straightforward—the earlier the detection, the better the chances at making a full and proper recovery.
Setting up ATTAC
In August 2014 Dr Kushwaha and her team set up ATTAC to ensure that they can meet and spend time with as many patients as possible.
On being asked why she chose to start an organisation, she says, “With all the organisations I worked at, what I realised was the scarcity of time. The sessions we conducted with the patient always seemed rushed, and we wanted to ensure that we change that.”
“Very often, because of the sheer volume of patients who would come in, we got only a few minutes with each of them, and that was never enough to make an impact,” she adds.
When asked about ATTAC’s funding, she says, “Most of our funding comes from the Yuvraj Singh Foundation (YouWeCan Foundation) with whom I have been associated. Besides this, we only have one full-time employee and everyone else, including me, is working on a part-time basis.”
ATTAC also conducts talks at various corporates and charges anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for a session. “This money that we get is then divided amongst the health workers who were part of that particular event or talk,” she says.
“We would have most certainly impacted close to 30,000 people so far. Whether in our counselling sessions, awareness programmes, or the various camps that we conduct. While we are now present in Tier 1 cities, the intent is to reach Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities now,” she says.
The five aims of ATTAC are:
1. Creating awareness
To try and educate as many people as possible on the ill-effects of substance abuse.
To empower people to quit substance abuse. This is being done immaterial of the social strata they belong to.
Educate smokers about the harm that they are causing to their immediate family.
4. Provide strategy and assistance
Other than educating people they also provide support when it comes to kicking the habit and ensuring that it stays that way.
5. Follow up with a cure
They also follow up cases for relapse prevention by screening and keeping a record of their patients. Providing motivational assistance, counselling and follow up by the help of telephone calls, SMS, E-mails and short appointments are also carried out.
Starting at home
For Dr Kushwaha the agenda that she works with is something that she also takes back home and implements personally.
“My husband, Dr Nganba was a chain smoker and would smoke up to 30 cigarettes a day. I have seen how difficult the entire process of letting the habit go is.”
“While people who smoke go through their share of issues, those around them are in it equally and must start addressing that. There is a point when as doctors we beg the patients to stop smoking/chewing tobacco, and it all falls on deaf ears, then when they develop a lesion in the mouth or are detected with cancer, the roles are reversed, and they come to us begging, crying, and seeking help,” she says.
Tips for giving up smoking from a former smoker
Dr Nganba speaks to us and shares some tips that worked for him when he was trying to give up smoking.
1) The initial ten days are extremely crucial, and that is when the cravings are also at a peak. Find ways to keep yourself engaged so that you are busy with other things.
2) Support from your immediate family and friends is essential. “There are times when you just want to inhale the smoke and in times like that having the support of your family is of great importance,” he says.
3) You will experience mood swings as well, so brace yourself for it. It is ultimately a mind game, and all you have to ensure is that you are in control.
If you work in an organisation or are a school administrator, and would like to invite team ATTAC to deliver a talk on substance abuse and early cancer screening, do reach out to them via this website.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)