A newly opened paediatric oncology centre in Madurai has put the city on the cancer treatment map in Tamil Nadu

Jenish plays around like any other four-year-old. His curly hair, chubby cheeks and cherubic smile win me over. He laughs, tears around and cuddles his younger brother. With a smattering of English, he says his birthday cake is tasty. But I am not at his birthday party. Rather, we are in a totally different setting and his parents express gratitude that their son is alive.

Here, at the top floor of Meenakshi Mission Hospital and Research Centre (MMHRC) in Madurai, the paediatric oncology ward is very different. At least from the images I carry of the cancer ward where I lost my mother two decades ago. Five-year-old Harini, diagnosed with leukaemia, and Abita, suffering from neuroblastoma, play with building blocks inside a playroom. Surrounded by bright paintings and festoons of paper ribbons, children in different stages of recovery look carefree. I sense more joy than grimness.

“Jenish is the healthiest of the 25 children being treated now,” beams the duty doctor. Last year, it was not so. An MRI scan for continuing pain in his legs revealed cancer of bones. His tiny body was invaded by tubes and medication. He suffered three bouts of severe infection during the treatment. But the disease failed to get the best of him.

Relentless

Says Dr. S. Jayabose, Director Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, “The battle with cancer was always touch and go. But a focused fight with early, intelligent and innovative treatment can change the nature of paediatric care and cure. Jenish and many like him are examples of success.”

Dr. Jayabose's entry into MMHRC from New York Medical College post-retirement has redefined paediatric oncology treatment and care in southern Tamil Nadu. “Till now, only Chennai and Vellore had specialized cancer centres. Now, Madurai is also on the map.” He adds that the rarity of the problem often delays diagnosis.

Nearly 2,600 children are estimated to develop cancer every year in Tamil Nadu. But only half of them have access to treatment due to dearth of paediatric cancer centres. When Dr. Jayabose returned to India after three decades of work in the U.S., his agenda was clear. “Worldwide about 2,30,000 children develop cancer annually. Almost 85 per cent of them live in developing countries and only 40 per cent have access to modern treatment due to lack of paediatric cancer centres, trained paediatric oncologists and oncology nurses and financial resources. In the West and other resource-rich countries, all children with cancer receive modern treatment and more than 85 per cent get cured. This balance always bothered me.”

Last January, he set up the Camila Children's Cancer Centre at MMHRC. “Our goal is to offer modern treatment to all children with cancer regardless of their ability to pay,” he says. With the help of his family and friends abroad, he initiated the Camila Children's Cancer Fund, which pays for expensive but essential medications and diagnostic tests for children from poor families. The hospital supports the Fund by waiving physician's and room charges and supplying some antibiotics at base cost.

The centre was officially inaugurated two months ago by former President Dr. A.P.J. Kalam, and Camila was the name of Dr. Jayabose's first patient who succumbed to cancer in New York many years ago.

The very first case he treated here was a 16-year-old girl, Ponmeni, admitted with life-threatening pneumonia. Three months later she was diagnosed with leukaemia and suffered from internal bleeding, fits, severe infections and paralysis of arms and legs. “She would be lying flat on the bed with immobilized muscles. Her smile and the willingness to fight depression remained intact. On seeing me, she would always say, ‘I am fine, doctor.' After a year's intensive treatment, today she is back home, walking around.”

“The longer cancer stays in the body, the more difficult it gets to treat,” explains the oncologist. “Often, patients die of infection despite very good chances of cure. Children are easier to handle but novel treatments need to be continually developed to help them. If relapse doesn't occur within first five years, the disease rarely returns.” Dr. Jayabose says the key to successful treatment is early diagnosis, timely and proper medical intervention and infection-free, high quality of life.

Parents' confidence levels shoot up when they see the doctors and staff caring so well and so much for their child. “Kids who are feeling well are allowed in the playing room. We are also arranging for teachers as many of these children miss school.”

In the last 12 months, more than 100 children, including 82 newly diagnosed patients, have been treated in the department, which is now getting equipped to handle 300 to 500 new patients annually in the coming years. A bone marrow transplant service will be started in two years.

“Earlier, people in South Tamil Nadu did not know where to go or had to travel to Chennai with their ailing child,” says Dr. Jayabose. This nearer centre, he feels, will help patients and their families to defy the odds, for there is always hope for a cancer-free tomorrow. And every child inside this cancer ward is fighting for a chance to be a child again.