Psych-Oncology Much Needed in India

By Nritya Ramani
March 11, 2013

The Big C.

In India, this is synonymous with death, at least as far as general perception goes. And this fear is so entrenched in the mind of the common man that getting to the very root of the problem can be an uphill task.

There are many myths in India surrounding cancer. A lot of people believe that it is a form of punishment for bad karma: Bad things only happen to bad people. Some think it is contagious and this can lead to ostracizing, even by one’s own family. With public health funding accounting for only 1 percent of the total government budget, a lot of the misconceptions stem from a lack of public education and awareness schemes.

Despite spiritual beliefs of reincarnation and higher realms, the concept of dying is still very painful and frightening. Soothsayers are sought out. Sacred threads and various mantras are often invoked to forestall life’s greatest mystery: death. If only horoscopes and zodiacs were spot on. If only a single incantation was all that is required for life to have a 180-degree turn. But the truth of the matter is that there are no real cheat sheets.

Suffering from cancer doesn’t always mean support is guaranteed. With a burgeoning population, palliative care is still a relatively new concept. Why bother for one whose chances of recovery are low when there are so many more patients to attend to?

When it comes to abandonment and negligence, women and children are especially at high risk. A colleague of mine was recounting one particular incident to me. A woman was admitted into the cancer institute and her tumor was found to be at an advanced stage. While the medical protocol was being discussed, her husband took the doctor aside and asked if the cycles of chemotherapy were truly necessary, his point being that since his wife was going to die anyway, why bother pay- ing for her treatment. What is to be noted here is that the man wasn’t under any financial constraints. He was actually very well off and well educated. But his apathy is fueled both by the society’s patriarchal priorities and its dismissal of cancer patients.

The question of quantity versus quality is pertinent. It is not just about accepting the diagnosis and following the treatment. What is yet to be comprehended is the importance of providing dignity to patients, to not make them the object of ideas and procedures, but to instead give them joy, reinforcement and love. Quality of life is many times lost in the pursuit of quantity of life.

Psycho oncology has come a long way in India. With more and more survivors playing an active public role in cancer awareness, the idea that there is life after cancer is slowly beginning to dawn. Counseling the patient and the caregivers is becoming relevant as strong family support is shown to lower relapse rates and boost survival.

Apart from diet and exercise, holistic methods such as yoga, pranayama (breathing exercises) and chanting are being implemented for mental peace and positivity. Alternative care such as ayurveda and homeopathy may be included but strictly in accordance with the consulting physician.

Cancer is not just about the best medical care, the best doctors or the best medicines. There is a lot more that goes into it, such as love, understanding, optimism and, above all, hope. No one should be subservient to life’s unpredictability. It should make us stronger, wiser and more alive.

Nritya Ramani is currently working with Sadhana Charitable Trust to promote cancer awareness and psycho oncology in India. She is in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs for fall 2013. She may be reached by email at:

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