Swagatika Acharya, a skilled Odissi dancer, loves performing dance. “Dancing makes me feel alive. It’s an emotion that rushes in my blood,” says the 24-year-old from Cuttack, Odisha, who was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma (a type of cancer that affects the nasopharynx), in 2017.
A teenager, just a year into pursuing the Bachelor of Legislative Law (LLB) programme from Siksha ‘O’ Anusandhan (SOA), deemed to be a University in Bhubaneswar, her education became distant. But Swagatika didn’t give up and was more determined than ever to live a high-spirited life and pursue her dreams to become a lawyer, scuba diver and paraglide in Thailand, all of which she has accomplished after recovering from cancer.
Recalling the day in October 2017, when she held her reports in her hand, she says, “I was the one who opened my reports. My family thought I’d be in trauma when I’d find out I have cancer because I was young. But I wasn’t shocked. I was aware there is a treatment, and I’d recover and get better.”
The 24-year-old, who today practices at the High Court of Odisha and is also a Master’s student of law SOA, is nothing less than a fighter. “There were just two options: That I either fight to win or just sit back and think why life had made this decision for me,” she says.
She not only fought cancer but also established Awaaken Cancer Care Trust in Cuttack, Odisha, a non-profit organisation that aims for a cancer-free nation and strives to improve healthcare in the communities of Odisha.
Finding light in the darkness
Manoranjan Acharya, Swagatika’s father, was the strongest support in her life. He recalls Swagatika as a fragile child who cried every time she saw an injection. But cancer treatment toughened her. He says, “During her chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Swagatika has taken hundreds of needles. I’ve lost count.”
The side effects of chemotherapy made it challenging to locate her vein by the end of her treatment. Watching his daughter go through this treatment, Manoranjan adds that he is proud of his daughter’s fighting spirit. He says, “Her confidence has always been high.”
Swagatika was informed by her doctors that she would lose her hair once the chemotherapy started. So she took a bold decision to go bald.
She underwent three cycles of chemotherapy and 37 doses of radiotherapy. She recollects the two-and-a-half month-long radiotherapy, as the toughest part of her cancer treatment. She explains, “I lost my voice for four months and was unable to speak so I communicated using a notepad. I couldn’t eat as my food pipe was squeezed and was surviving on a glass of water, barley water and rice starch each day. I developed mouth ulcers and my skin colour darkened.”
She lost 30-35 kg while battling cancer, down from 55 kg at the time of her diagnosis. “Physical weight was never my concern as I feel that if we are mentally fit, everything else can happen on the go.” Citing Mahatma Gandhi as an example, she continues, “There are people who are thin but are an example to the world. The Father of the nation was a thin person, but he fought for India’s freedom.”
This thought pushed her to inspire other patients.
She wrote blogs and posted updates about her cancer treatment on social media. While some people cheered her on, others trolled her. She says, “They passed comments like ‘You won’t get married.’ ‘You are a girl and a burden to your family’.” Some even showed up to her doorsteps criticising her parents’ decision to support her. She continued, “They remarked at my parents, ‘Why are you getting her treated? She’s a girl. Save the money for your old age’.”
These episodes didn’t detract Swagatika. Swagatika, who was honoured in December 2021 by Prof Ganeshi Lal, the Governor of Odisha, as the youngest Cancer Activist in Odisha, says, “It was my journey and I was being judged.”
Awakening to fight
Her interactions with cancer fighters undergoing the same treatments, made her realise that cancer is just a part of life, not an entire life. “They were hesitant to interact with me. They would cry and didn’t want to talk. They felt burdened with cancer,” explains Swagatika when reflecting on the difficulties faced by those with cancer. She recalls that even those who had received successful treatment and were cancer-free were reluctant to come forward.
Such encounters revealed the taboos surrounding cancer in Odisha and made her aware that just raising awareness of cancer wasn’t sufficient. “Even the public should be educated and convinced to support those battling cancer. It wasn’t important to be a cancer survivor but rather address taboos and create an awareness about cancer that is important,” stresses the vicenarian.
With more than one reason to fight a cause, Swagatika founded Awaaken Cancer Care Trust in 2018. Officially registered in 2019, Awaaken has actively been working for a cancer-free nation, committing itself to raise cancer awareness, setting up camps to screen for cancer, counselling and rehabilitating cancer survivors, guiding the best course of treatment and offering free teleconsultations with medical professionals.
Even though the organisation had been in existence only for a few months when the pandemic struck, Awaaken was active on social media. According to Swagatika, “Our organisation helped over 130 cancer fighters during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, making their treatment possible on time and supporting them with the medicines they needed.” She adds that they even made arrangements to bring cancer fighters from hundreds of kilometres away to Bhubaneswar to ensure their treatment continued unhindered. The funds for this came from well-wishers, donors, friends and family.
Since 2019, AWAAKEN has collaborated with local organisations and hospitals and held more than 500 cancer awareness campaigns. Additionally, the organisation has given more than 3,000 women in Odisha’s rural and urban areas free breast cancer screenings.
“We carry mobile mammogram machines, sponsored by hospitals, to villages as it makes it easier for breast cancer detection. We provide free food to encourage women to come forward,” she says.
At least 50 cancer survivors have benefitted from Awaaken’s support in the form of free transportation, ambulance rides, chemotherapy-sponsored treatments and surgeries, counselling sessions, etc. They also provided funds for exorbitant medical tests, food, medicines, and other nutritional requirements that patients cannot afford. “They were treated under our guidance and are living cancer-free.” Awaaken has served almost 70 paediatric cancer fighters with its nutritional supplements.
Deepanjali Juin, 35, a breast cancer survivor from Keunjhar district in Odisha is also a mother of two. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33 in 2020. It was during the lockdown that she felt a pain in her breasts. She sought medical advice from local doctors in the Keunjhar district, Odisha. The results of the tests revealed a sore in her breast. But when three months of meditation produced no improvement, she started looking for other options.
At that time, she learned about Awaaken through her friends. Deepanjali says, “I was broken. I had two children and my husband was away working in Nepal.” Through Awaaken’s help, Deepanjali was transported to Cuttack where she was treated at Carcinova Cancer Hospital. There she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, and surgery in over five months from August to December 2020.
Recalling those tough days, Deepanjali says, “Swagatika madam played the role of a sister and a mother.” When Deepanjali’s loved ones bad-mouthed her because of her disease, Swagatika counselled her. “Madam told me to be with those individuals who were good to me and stay away from those who spoke ill about me. She was my God. She gave me a lot of strength to overcome this situation,” she says, adding, “I am fine now. I take care of my household and look after my children. I still visit the hospital for my follow-up visits every three months.”
On Cancer Survivors Day in June, Swagatika added another feather to her cap. In the company of her father and other cancer survivors, oncologists and cancer caregivers Swagatika participated in a trek, titled ‘Peak to Peak- Winning Over Cancer’, an initiative of Apollo Cancer Centres, to spread awareness about positive living after cancer treatments. Together, they scaled more than 11,000 feet, to Dayara Bugyal in Uttarakhand.
“Many people discouraged me that I couldn’t trek because of my weight. I was nervous,” said Swagatika who had more significant challenges to overcome. Having lost her saliva glands as the side effects of radiation therapy, Swagatika doesn’t have saliva. As a result, to keep her mouth moist, she has to sip water every few minutes.
Despite these obstacles, Swagatika is determined to be a beacon of hope and an example to everyone, going through a similar battle. “As a cancer survivor, I have achieved the impossible. So can you,” she says rather victoriously.
Edited by Yoshita Rao