Succour for cancer patients

Many terminally ill cancer patients have found succour in the last stages of their life at this Shanti Avedna Ashram , set up in 1978 by oncologist L J de Souza in Mumbai

By Vibha Varshney
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Succour for cancer patients

Home away from home (Credit: Ruhani Kaur / CSE)When Sanjay Sharma, a 30-year-old truck driver, was detected with throat cancer in 2002, doctors at the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences informed him that he could not be cured. Even as he was shattered by this news, doctors referred him to the S hanti Avedna Ashram (peace without pain) -- a palliative care centre for cancer patients. With time and adequate care, his suffering slowly eased. Sanjay's mother now hopes against all odds that her son would recover.

Many terminally ill cancer patients have found succour in the last stages of their life at this ashram , set up in 1978 by oncologist L J de Souza in Mumbai. The ashram now has branches in Goa and Delhi as well. "I had patients who had reached the terminal stage of cancer, were broken in body and spirit, financially drained and clueless about how to sustain themselves," says de Souza. Seeing the helpless state of these patients, de Souza decided to start the ashram . He managed to secure a plot of land in front of the Shrine of Mount Mary Church in Bandra. The money for construction was collected through donations. Sisters of the Holy Cross (a religious sect) volunteered to take care of the patients. They were trained at London's St. Christopher's hospice and the ashram started functioning in 1986.

According to de Souza, palliative care is extremely important in India considering the fact that about three-quarters of cancer patients seek medical help only at an advanced stage when further treatment does not help. Along with the pain, a host of disorders -- such as breathing difficulties, nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, bowel and bladder irregularities -- make life unbearable for the patients. At such times, relatives of these patients face the usual quandary: to keep the patients in the hospital or to take them home.

For these patients the ashram seems a one-stop solution. Usually from the lower middle class, these patients cannot afford to pay for 24-hour care at home. The quality of life is better in a hospital than at home. As an added benefit, patients do not even have to worry about the expenses.

All medical, nursing, accommodation, treatment and food charges are taken care of. Pain is controlled through various ways, with narcotics such as morphine or through massage therapy and relaxation exercises. Patients of all ages, economic status and religion are welcomed to this unit of intensive care. Their relatives are also allowed to stay with them. "Here we just try to add life to days and not days to life. There can be a limit to cure but there is no limit for care," says de Souza.

"When my father was detected with cancer, he was more unhappy about the effect of the treatment than the fact that he was suffering from the disease. We brought him to the ashram so that he could spend the last days of his life peacefully," says 75-year-old Bhagwati Prasad Joshi's son.

To date around 10,000 patients have been admitted to the ashram . The approximate stay of a patient is only three to four weeks. Though the concept is doing well in Mumbai and Goa, it is yet to catch up in Delhi. Out of 40 beds at the ashram in Delhi only about 10-15 are generally occupied. De Souza feels that there is an urgent need to create awareness both among doctors and patients' relatives.

At a recent conference on palliative care held in the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital, Mumbai, it was discussed that doctors have an important role for it is their duty to refer beneficial palliative care to their patients. According to de Souza, similar care should be given to people suffering from debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and aids . "Plans are also on to use alternative medicines for providing palliative care," says de Souza.

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