Today I bring to you an extraordinary story of a courageous woman, Dr. Capt. Ritu Biyani, who is based in Pune. She is a woman who has worn several hats – a dental surgeon in army, first Lady Officer paratrooper from the army dental corps, a mountaineer, skydiver and a thorough nomad.
Her story can be an inspiration to you, me and everyone who has faced, even for a moment, the dreaded fear that – This is it. The precious life that you have so far taken for granted, may no longer be there.
Dr. Ritu grappled with this fear in 2000 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought back and survived.
It is after the struggle for survival is over and acceptance for the inevitability of the situation seeps in; comes the hardest part – rebuild your new life. How you choose to do it, is where heroes differ from the common folks.
Dr. Ritu decided to dedicate her life for educating people on cancer, preventive measures and offering supportive care for those afflicted with it. She decided to reach out. To thousands of women and men, living along the length and breadth of the entire country. Yes, the length and breadth of the country. Literally.
She drove solo across the country, the four tips of India, along with her 14-year-old daughter Tista in a Ford endeavour for 177 days! Distance covered – a whopping 30, 220 kms! First woman to go on such a solo drive, she, along with her daughter Tista holds Limca Book of Records for first mother-daughter duo expedition on cancer awareness across the country.
Here’s a quick Q and A with the lady herself:
Why a road journey? Why this need to reach globally and not focus on just local awareness?
(Naughtily smiles) Yes, a good question when going only local could have made me famous as well, at least locally. But cancer is not a local problem. It does not recognize geographical, cultural, political, socio-economic boundaries.
I am a doctor, and yet I was taken unawares by breast cancer at a young age of 40. So my thought after survival was what about so many of the other women who in the course of multitasking in their different roles in daily life are unaware of their health. They keep their own health on low priority. It is imperative that they must be forewarned and be groomed to prevent.
Traveling is second nature to me. I am at peace when I am at roads. So I thought I would travel to people with my story, with scientific facts and basic awareness about cancer. I focus on oral cancer and cervix cancer, besides breast cancer.
That explained, I have undertaken several local initiatives like cancer walks, workshops etc. in Pune.
So your target audience to create awareness is healthy audience? We celebrate October as breast awareness month. Most of us are familiar with the pink ribbon that we have come to associate with breast cancer. Hasn’t enough awareness happened already?
Yes, and cancer survivors. But I will come to that later. You will be surprised to know how many educated people are not aware of their bodies. Cancer is not about a painful lump. Any lump, and however harmless it looks, may be cancerous. Most lumps are not cancerous initially. A white patch may be an indication of something ominous. It is a myth that cancer is incurable. It is curable, probability is higher if detected early. How many women are breast aware? We use this term ‘breast aware’ in all our workshops. And unfortunately, even the educated ones fall behind in being ‘breast aware’.
How many of us really go for regular checkups. I can bet that even 10% of these who have access to screening facilities do not go for regular pap test for cervix cancer and clinical breast check/mammogram at appropriate age. So its not just about creating awareness, but also counseling for screening needs to be emphasized.
Now think of those underprivileged and uneducated masses. Odds of them being aware of simple, basic things like self breast-examination are less. Especially when there are so many taboos attached to our body in our society. Furthermore, cancer treatment is hugely costly, almost beyond the reach of a common man. Prevention and early detection of cancer is the best bet we have.
So your awareness is aimed to prevent. What do you mean there are stigmas associated with cancer? Cancer is not a communicable disease in any way, unlike AIDS that can still be passed on by birth, infected blood/needles.
Stigmas related to cancer are something that even survivors have to face. I remember soon after my chemotherapy, when hair hadn’t yet grown back. A woman happened to inquire about my lack of hair. When I told her I had just undergone treatment for cancer, she left the room abruptly. Later I got to know this educated lady could not bear the thought of being around a cancer patient. I have no complaints, but this just goes to show we need awareness. Survivors, even if they have beaten the disease, need psychosocial support. Beating cancer is life-changing.
All these years, thanks to the media coverage I have received my contact details are usually prominently displayed in articles, I have heard from cancer survivors around the country via letters, phone, and emails. The cancer survivors out there need to know that there is a life after cancer.
Yes, I have come across psychological implications associated with a breast cancer survivor. A friend’s mother had undergone mastectomy, i.e. surgical removal of one or both breasts. She had to undergo therapy to deal with her ‘new body’. What are your observations on the subject?
Breasts are associated with femininity. Losing them is hard for any woman, whatever her age be.
A decision of mastectomy is usually taken if cancer is spread in the larger portion or entire breast. It is done to save life. One can also use artificial external prosthesis or have breast reconstruction, which is like plastic surgery. These are also expensive corrections.
However, not every patient has to undergo a mastectomy. As the technologies and researches are advancing, mastectomy is avoided as far as possible, even by doctors. They too try to ‘conserve’ breasts. Lumpectomy is another treatment wherein only the affected part of the breast is removed. Again, this can be done only when the cancer is localised to just a part of the breast and has not spread in the entire breast.
This is where our awareness workshops play major role. Awareness helps in early detection which is important in any cancer. One needs to be aware of the signs and symptoms; be breast aware.
Cancer requires enormous psychological adjustments and loads of emotional support. Actually, in any type of cancer, it’s not just the patient but the entire family that goes through major upheaval. Therefore, cancer support groups play a positive role on emotional well-being of patient and caregivers.
Both the woman patient and couples can go through a hard time during a breast cancer. A man’s sensitivity to woman’s new situation is very important. Which is why breast cancer awareness is important for men as well. It is little known that men too can get breast cancer, though the incidence is barely 1%. Our workshops, we are proud to mention, educate even men on the issue. And I am happy to report that I have come across many cases where couples and families have bonded closer when faced with breast cancer.
I am in awe of your feat. 177 days on road. You touched four tips of India. But what stands out in your story for me is that you drove to tough terrains of Leh, Ladakh. You went to north-east, a part which rest of the country pays minimal attention to. What was your experience like? Please share some high points of your trip.
I have been to Ladkah before in 98 and 99, when my husband was posted there. But during this solo drive, I crossed Khardung La, highest motorable road in the world along with many other higher passes.
Reaching out to multiple ethnicities in India was a great experience. Be it Buddhists in Ladkah, Muslims in Kashmir, tribals in north-east or nuns and woman monks. They all came and participated.
Everywhere I was overwhelmed by the hospitality shown by people. They invited us into their homes, fed us and gave us room to sleep. Living with the locals was a great experience. North-east was no exception. I would like to go back there again. Some of them take pains to keep in touch. For example, a guy from Assam painstakingly visits a far off phone booth since phone network is not accessible in certain tribal areas. He calls to talk about his wife’s case who is a cancer patient. (Notice it is a man who is taking initiative.) Cancer patient/survivors/caregivers require moral and emotional support alike.
The high point of the trip was the fact when I set out, I had no idea that I would be able to reach out to over 26000 people through 140 camps. There was an overwhelming response and best part was that 80% of these camps were unplanned, impromptu stops. Dots got connected en-route as the journey progressed.
We also get a lot of support from Defence and civil authorities, village heads, friends, and even strangers in our reach outs.
Project HIGHWAYS 2006 expedition became an impetus, on which all my subsequent projects are built. To this date, I have been able to reach to over 1 lakh people either through workshops, presentations or supportive care. However, I believe all this to be minuscule, considering the vastness of the country.
What exactly do you do in your workshops? I am assuming you must have a format if you do it so frequently ether locally or on road trips.
The focus of the workshop is to educate people ranging from tribals to technos on basic facts of cancer: from prevention to end-of-life care. To dispel myths, stigmas, ignorance associated with the disease. We put the survivor’s perspective and make the participants play a proactive role in their own life and within their own spheres.
I rely more on visual aids like presentations. Since visuals make a strong impact and images linger on people’s minds. Depending on the audience, I modify my presentations. Also, try to use local languages. I share my own journey through cancer and invite them to share their fears and stories. Idea is to make it as interactive as possible.
Self Breast-Examination to be breast aware is the last segment of the session, which is conducted only for women. At this point, we take leave of all men.
Since April 2006 to date, I have personally conducted over 380 workshops, educating more than 66000 people in 24 states and 4 union territories.
What are your next endeavours?
Several, in fact. I plan to go on a second road expedition. This time my road trip will be focused on North, Central and South India.
I also plan to train people in these areas so that they can further take the work forward. In some places this work has already started.
I am looking for sponsors and funds for such a mammoth task. I need local volunteers (in places in my travel route) who can help me gather people and arrange venue for organising workshops. Also, need help from local people in Pune who can create posters and visual aids and helping video editing. Need to create short video/ documentary of trips, cancer walks and workshops to be shared with all. Any help in this direction is most welcome.
I am also planning a expedition for cancer survivors later this year to mark the international breast cancer month in October. The blue print is under construction. Idea is to send out a strong message through adventure that life after cancer can be exciting.
I am also working on how to connect people at grassroots to cancer experts. Also, I am exploring technology options. I am open to ideas from people on how to make this possible. Next is to raise funds for free cancer screening wherever we do our workshops.
Thank you, Dr. Ritu. It was a pleasure to meet you and speak to you.
Readers, here is a request. When Dr. Ritu embarks on her road expedition this year, she would require lot of support in terms of funds and people. Here is how you can help.
- Let us know if you are aware of, any corporate responsibility initiative at your organisation. Or any other source, where Dr. Ritu’s project can find sponsors. Please write to us, any leads are welcome.
- If you are living anywhere North, Central, South India on central axis (tentative route) and can help in organising a workshop in your area, please write to us. Even if you are in any other part of India and can help us, please write. This will help us mark places for 2010 workshops as Dr. Ritu plans her itinerary.
- If you are in Pune and have some spare time, you can help Dr. Ritu to create some posters that she can leave behind with people at villages. If you are good at editing video, Dr. Ritu can do with your help to create videos/documentaries of her last trip, cancer walks and workshops. You can organise workshops for your own groups, institution, clubs, residential areas etc.
- Should you personally want to contribute to Dr. Ritu’s project financially, you are more than welcome. NO AMOUNT IS TOO SMALL. Her foundation is called Highways Infinite. All donations are exempted under 80G  of the Income Tax Act, 1961.
- Lastly, if you or any of your dear ones are affected with cancer and wish to be part of Dr. Ritu’s ongoing endeavour /support group or need a platform to do something in this field, please feel free to connect her via email at missionhighways at gmail dot com. You can also call her at +91 98812 32744.