Chai, Sari, Cancer…

Viji Venkatesh, the Regional Head (India & South Asia) of The Max Foundation and the Managing Trustee of Friends of Max, Being Human the Salman Khan Foundation, shares her love and passion for her work in cancer patient care and support in an exclusive conversation with City First. Viji will be presenting a session – ‘Chai, Sari, Cancer’ at the forthcoming Woman Up! Summit from 14 to 16 October at Hotel Grand Uniara. 

Viji candidly talks about her project ‘Chai for Cancer, specialized skills for health professionals in this field, breakthroughs in cancer patient care as well as gives us a preview of her session at the Summit. 

You have been working in cancer patient care and support for over 30 years now. What drove you towards this field of work?

To be very honest, I was looking for a job.  I was in my mid-thirties and had no qualifications to speak of except for a BA in English Lit. I got a job with an NGO that was raising funds for cancer patients. 

Gradually, I began understanding the trauma that cancer diagnosis brings about in the lives of the families affected. I had seen both my grandmother and mother-in-law die because of cancer. I had nursed them. So I knew what it was like. But here I was looking at people who had no money at all for even basic needs. I began conducting Awareness Lectures in the mills and factories and talking to the workers about tobacco and to their wives about self-breast examinations. 

Over the years, my work has brought me very close to many cancer patients and I have been involved in supporting them emotionally as well . It is very challenging and demanding but more rewarding than anything else. You begin to appreciate what you have and there is a compelling need to make every minute of your life count. 

Tell us something about your fundraising initiative ‘Chai for Cancer’?

The project ‘Chai for Cancer’ is a unique attempt to raise awareness in the community about the needs of cancer survivors as well as create an event that will be a fundraiser to provide vital support to the families facing a cancer diagnosis.

Volunteers, most of them either patients themselves or caregivers and friends of patients, host what is called ‘Chai ka Adda’ in their homes and invite friends, families and neighbours to have Chai. They not only raise funds but also create awareness of cancer amongst their circle  and the needs of families facing a cancer diagnosis.
Guests who attend the ‘Addas’ pay a minimum of Rs. 100/- . We managed to create more awareness when a popular FM Radio Station espoused our cause. People unknown to us which included a few corporate offices were moved by the concept of ‘Addas’ and decided to host it themselves and joined our cause. Furthermore, I use Social Media to promote this concept.

What kind of specialised skills do health professionals require in this line? 

Compassion combined with a professional approach, information and communication skills and above all, empathy.

What have been some of the breakthroughs in cancer patient care in recent times?

Today we have what is known as ‘Targeted Therapy’ , where drugs are developed for specific cancers that target and attack only the cancerous cells . This means the patients do not have to undergo the toxic effect of chemotherapy which attack all the cells in the body as they are getting cures. This ensures better quality of life along with extension of life . In India we have world class treatment centres and extremely competent oncologists. The challenge is of course the lack of awareness, stigma and discrimination and the immense patient load . Similarly,  poverty , lack of insurance and high medical costs that come out of patients’ pockets, also impacts the treatment cancer patients receive. 

Awareness and prevention are two basic areas we need to continue to strengthen our efforts. The most common forms of cancer in India can be prevented and detected early so as to improve cure rates and bringing down Mortality rates. 

Your session at the Woman Up! Summit is ‘Chai, Sari, Cancer’. Tell us a bit more about what you will be sharing at the session.

In the session, I will be sharing the journey of my life. Where I constantly reinvented myself, learning skills, competencies to make myself stronger. Currently, I am living my dream, have written a book and am the poster woman for the saree and brought cancer into the drawing rooms of people over a cup of chai.