Battling Cancer Amid Coronavirus: Children’s Tales of Survival in Double Whammy

As India and the world dedicate most of its manpower and medical resources to the tackling of Covid-19, a question mark blots the cancer care.

A smile flashes across 7-year-old Arfaz’s face as he remembers a forgotten feast. Ask him about his happy meal, and he recounts, “Biryani, kebab, chicken, ice cream and chocolate.” But all that has been forbidden for seven months now as he lost his health and appetite to an aggressive type of blood cancer called Pre B ALL. Arfaz weighed just 17 kilograms when he was checked in to Bengaluru’s Shankara hospital.

After the cancer, it was Covid-19 lockdown that dealt a double blow to the family. His father Salim Khan, an autorickshaw driver, was instantly out of work. The family of four soon out of money and food. Salim recalls how he struggled to put food on the table. “We couldn’t even go out to get ration. It was beyond our means. We had no money for other expenses”, says Khan, the sole bread-winner of the family.

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Thousands of miles away in Assam’s Guwahati, 11-year-old Tonoto Zhimoni is suffering from Medulloblastoma, a fourth stage brain tumour. Despite his medical condition, the boy and his mother were shunted out of the place where they were living on rent. The owner of the place feared that they might contract coronavirus infection and spread it to others since they were frequently visiting the hospital for treatment. The mother, Vilika, recalls how she had to house-hunt in the middle of a pandemic. “In Guwahati I have nobody. At that time, I was sad, I was angry but then God opened the way,” she says.

Worried that Zhimoni’s health might suffer, nutritionist Momi Barman from the Cuddles Foundation who has been treating his health and immunity for a year now ensured that rations reached the family’s doorstep during the lockdown. Covid-19 or no Covid-19, Momi had to be at the hospital everyday for other children like Tonoto so that their care was not compromised.

Arfan, Tonoto and hundreds of children like them across India who were already fighting cancer are now battling a new common enemy: Covid-19.

As India and the world dedicate most of its manpower and medical resources to the tackling of Covid-19, a question mark blots the cancer care.

Every 5 minutes, a child in India is diagnosed with cancer which means that over 45,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in India. According to an AIIMS study, 30 to 40 percent child cancer patients are undernourished.

According to Dr Krishna Chaitanya, a paediatric oncologist, cancer treatment and nutrition should go hand-in-hand.

“Assessment of nutritional status and intervention at the right time can help children cope with the treatment, reducing the treatment complications, and hence improving the response and cure rates.” This is why keeping their immunity intact through nutrition and treatment is the key. But the unprecedented prioritization of Covid-19 over other illnesses could come at the cost of neglecting thousands who suffer from killer cancers.

Doctors and nutritionists at 33 government and charitable hospitals are doing just that. These hospitals mostly cater to children from underprivileged families that survive on daily-wage earnings. With uninterrupted treatment and a steady supply of nutritious ration, supplements and frequent follow-ups by nutritionists, they have shown remarkable results even during the lockdown. Arfaz gained three kilograms during the lockdown. Tonoto’s health has also consistently improved and he regained 7 kilograms.

For now, food an nutrition is reaching them. But with an uncertain future, these children depend on nutrition programs for their survival.

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