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  who's who >> Verve >> Vandana Gupta


Tomorrow Will Come

"Every individual who is battling the disease is a cancer survivor. If you have a positive attitude, half your battle is won"

To countless cancer patients, V Care is the constant reassurance that life can get better. Dealing with the grim fears that the illness creates, the Mumbai-based organisation provides an invaluable lifeline for those in their fight towards recovery. Its unwavering founder, Vandana Gupta, a cancer survivor herself, shows SHRADDHA JAHAGIRDAR-SAXENA how she, and her band of volunteers, help individuals cope with the calamity

The eight-year-old boy slouches in the metallic chair in a corner of the hospital canteen, toying with the food on his plate. His anxious mother continues to cajole him, but to no avail. A pony-tailed, middle-aged woman, clad in a simple sari and a white apron, hears the conversation and sits besides the boy. In soft tones, she talks to him: “You have to take your medicines to get well, right?” The boy nods his head at the familiar figure. “Then why don’t you eat your food?” “I am not hungry,” he replies. She strokes his bald pate and adds, “You must go back to school soon to catch up with your work and meet your friends. This is just like your medicine, eat it up quickly. You will try, won’t you?”

Promise elicited, Vandana Gupta turns around and walks through the crowded floor of the Golden Jubilee wing of Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital to the small, tidy office where V Care (Voluntary Cancer Rehabilitation) – the support group for cancer patients, family members and care-givers – is based. Trailing in her footsteps, I take time to weave my way in and out of the patients and their families who await their turn on a busy Monday afternoon. Over the subdued ebb and flow of noise, repeated announcements are made on the intercom…. Just like a bustling railway station, the thought passes through my mind. But, there is no excitement of travel here. The sights and sounds of a hospital, the signs of illness and the business of curing are amply evident.

On a bench in the corridor, a girl restlessly pulls at her father’s hand. He bids her sit quietly. She squirms against his restraining grip, till her mother and elder sister, whose head is wrapped carefully in a scarf, join them. “We’ve been here for the last two weeks,” the mother tells me. “Aishwarya, my elder daughter, is suffering from Acute Lymphatic Leukamia. For two years she was in remission, but suddenly the illness has come back.” And the Nagpur-based family of four has returned to Mumbai (ever since the cancer entered their daughter’s life, they’ve been making frequent trips to the speciality hospital.) After a brief conversation with Gupta, the two girls scurry off to the playroom close by and begin a game of carrom.

Launched by Gupta, V Care – phonetically “We Care” (exemplifying Victory over Cancer) is dedicated to providing free, total support to those afflicted by the disease, so that their loved ones can receive the hope and encouragement that they need, to sustain their fight for recovery and maintain their overall quality of life.

Common misconceptions about cancer:
• It is incurable and it is a death sentence.
• It is always hereditary.
• The treatment is worse than the disease.
• It spreads fast and cannot be stopped.
• It is an infectious disease.

As I am talking to Gupta, a man hesitantly walks into the open-door office. Gupta interrupts our chat to answer his confused queries regarding admission. He has just arrived from Pune, with his young daughter. Gupta opens a ledger and points him in the right direction, even telling him which class to go in for. “Expenses are bound to go up beyond your initial expectations,” she cautions and urges that he return any time…. “We are here throughout the day,” she tells him.
“Often, when a person learns that he or a close family member has cancer,” Gupta explains, “he finds it difficult to cope with the calamity. At such moments, even a little guidance means a lot to him.” And, in the last decade, Gupta has provided succour and support to countless individuals.

One of the first patients V Care helped was a boy from Bhopal. The volunteers saw him getting better over the years but tragically the boy succumbed to the illness. His family kept in touch with them, “as we had got very involved with the case. We were very happy when we learnt a little while ago that the boy’s elder brother had joined an NGO in Bhopal.”

Though lasting bonds are created with many patients and their families, yet, often the initial response Gupta tends to receive from the suffering is one of thinly veiled scepticism. “Many individuals first react to my offer of assistance with ‘You won’t understand what we are going through…. How can you help us in any way?” It is here that her personal experience stands her in good stead. Afflicted by cancer ten years ago, this cancer survivor has seen it all – chemotherapy, hair loss, mood swings et al. “At 42, when I was told that I was suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a shiver went down my spine,” she recalls. “Though at first, I was relieved that it was not TB, soon the implications of the C-word set in. It felt like the end of the world for me and I went totally blank.”
Gupta recalls how she would visit her doctor and the hospital alone as she did not want to burden her family with the additional tension of seeing her suffer. “During my treatment, my emotions would ride a roller coaster – sometimes low, sometimes high. During chemotherapy, my WBC levels did drop, but not so alarmingly low that the treatment had to be stopped for a while…. My course was completed on time. Thankfully, today, it is all behind me. Cancer changed the course of my life – it gave me a purpose and a new meaning.” She sees the same anxiety writ on the face of almost every person who comes to the hospital for treatment. Information about procedures and formalities is confusing. “The number of patients is unbelievable,” Gupta says. “The hospital authorities are doing their best but because of lack of time and the sheer volume of people, the task is extremely daunting.”

That is where Gupta and her band of volunteers at V Care step in. (When V Care started in 1995, there were eight volunteers. Almost a decade later, there are 40-plus volunteers.) They try and address the family as a whole. Often, the patient becomes the focus of the family and other members are forgotten. “This is very common particularly if a child has been afflicted by cancer,” says Gupta. “The parents concentrate on the suffering child and ignore the sibling whose needs are also equally important. It is difficult to gain a perspective in a situation like this but we try and make the parents understand that they must not ignore the other child. We also help the parents to cope with any behavioural problems that the sick child may show due to over pampering.”

Over the years, Gupta has noticed that the caregivers also come under a lot of stress. Apart from the emotional and financial tensions of dealing with the disease, the family is put through a great deal of day-to-day trauma. She counsels friends and family members of patients to realise that any kind of guilt is not going to help the patients. “Close family members are scared to leave the patient alone,” she states matter of factly. “They forget that they have a life of their own. I tell them, ‘You are doing your best for the patient. Be there for him when he needs you, but at other times you must take care of your own needs, or else you will face a breakdown.’ We try and bring objectivity to a stressful and emotional situation.”

Remembers Gupta, “A few years ago, a woman was suffering from cancer…luckily it was detected early and treated on time. Unfortunately, at the same time, her father-in-law was sinking from the same disease. At home, she would get cold looks from her in-laws who couldn’t stomach her recovery and his deterioration. The woman would meet me every time she came in just so that she could talk things out. All I did was listen.”

Naturally, Gupta’s own emotional baggage helps her assist others much more than an objective person could. “With chemotherapy comes hair loss. Everyone is worried whether this is permanent” she says. “When I started coming to the hospital to talk to patients, soon after my treatment had been completed, my hair had begun to grow back. Seeing that, gave others concrete hope – it helped much more than mere words would have.” Her own experience and that of other cancer survivors is a strong lifeline for those on treatment. “We don’t call patients cancer victims. Everyone who is battling the disease is a cancer survivor. If you have a positive attitude, half your battle is won,” she says. “Most people feel that a diagnosis of cancer is almost a death sentence. It is not. Cancer is curable…and tell me, isn’t life from the very day you are born a countdown to your end from the reverse side?”
The need for strong emotional support has seen the creation of a ‘drop in’ programme. “We have regular meetings where patients undergoing treatment interact with those who have completed theirs. This gives a great boost to those who cannot see beyond tomorrow,” says Gupta. On the second Saturday of February every year, V Care celebrates Cancer Survivors’ Day. The celebration, started in Mumbai in 1995, has spread to other parts of India and nurtures the hum honge kamyaab attitude.

V Care caters to the needs of patients at different levels with its volunteers going to different hospitals in the city. “My team works on an entirely voluntary basis,” says Gupta proudly. “Whatever donations we get are used for the benefit of the patients.... Outstation patients have a different set of problems in addition to the medical treatment that they are looking for,” she continues. “Cancer treatment is often of long duration. So they need to a place to stay that is in their budgets.” V Care directs the patients to the hospital social work department and has built up a list of addresses that are convenient and economical. Money soon becomes an important factor in almost every patient’s life. “It is extremely distressing to see someone stop treatment because they do not have adequate funds,” believes Gupta. “We try to ensure that no one has to stop treatment in between. If a person runs out of funds we do give interim help. In cases like Hodgkin’s where the recovery rate is very good and the course of treatment short, we may even fund the whole thing. We want people to emerge stronger and go home well.”

Looking back at her own brush with cancer, Gupta admits that cancer breeds fear and despair mainly due to the misconceptions prevalent in the minds of people. “I am an educated woman, but even I was terrified when I learnt that I was suffering from a form of cancer. I used to worry time and again about how many years I had left,” she flashbacks. To dispel disinformation, V Care publishes a newsletter and pamphlets. “We are constantly answering questions – in person, on the phone or at ‘drop in’ meetings – and allaying patients’ fears…something even as small as ‘If I sleep in the same room as my children, will they catch the disease?’”

Gupta spends most of her time at the hospital, and also at the seven major hospitals that she and her team routinely visit. They interact with support groups in other cities to provide a vital network of information and healthcare. Their concern and commitment is evident through their tone, attitude…and smiling attention. Any wonder then, that the organisation is called ‘V Care?’

A patient often asks:
• Will I spread the disease to others?
• Will the disease be inherited by my children?
• Will I get better?
• How does it spread?
• Can I live a normal life?
• When will I be considered fully cured?
• Do chemotherapy and radiation cause damage to the body?
• If I tell my relatives about my disease will it affect their relationship with me?

Contact information:

V Care Foundation, Room
No 183, Golden Jubilee Block,
Tata Memorial Hospital, Parel,
Mumbai 400 012. India.

Tel: (022) 24177000.