Vasantha is just 37. But as she lies on the hospital bed, floating in and out of consciousness, she looks a hundred years old.

Painkillers coursing through her system sustain her through the day, giving her some relief from the unrelenting pain of cancer. But the anguish she goes through, just looking at her two young girls by her bedside, cannot be dulled by a shot of morphine.

Vasantha's physically challenged sister, her sole caretaker, is helpless every time Vasantha cries over the fate of her children. Vasantha was brought to the palliative care clinic run by Pallium India at SUT Hospital four days ago by Vijayaraj, a palliative care volunteer. He found her at her house in Keezhattoor, Kattakkada, doubled over and writhing in pain. With pain relief and care, she is at least able to sit up and talk now. “All we can do now is to assure her that her two girls – aged 15 and 13 years – will be in safe hands,” says Vijayaraj, an ASI at AR Camp, Nandavanam.

Vasantha had been diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and she had undergone mastectomy (breast removal) at the Regional Cancer Centre. By the time she came back from the hospital, her husband had abandoned her for another woman. With only an ailing father and a physically challenged sister at home, her hopes died fast.

“She used to go for manual labour and take good care of us. She kept her pain to herself and sent the children away to a charity hostel,” Vasantha's sister says. She refused treatment because there was no money or support.

“I was fed up. I stopped taking the medicines because they gave me severe stomach upsets and mouth ulcers. I knew I was dying but nothing had prepared me for the pain that will kill me a little day by day,” Vasantha says.

Her children, brought to visit her by a neighbour, looked bewildered. Seeing their mother at peace had given them the tiny hope that she will come home soon.

“It is a sad, sad story and one that we cannot rewrite, however much we would like to. But then, this is the story of every patient we see,” says Dr. Sithara, at Pallium India.

“Think of the others whom we may not see at all, dying painful deaths in some dark corner. How can we, as a civilised community, just stand aside and shun all responsibility? Palliative care is not just about helping one die painlessly but about giving a helping hand to the devastated family to stand up and continue living. A government cannot do that always, but each one of us can,” M.R. Rajagopal, the chairman of Pallium India, says.