By the age of 70, Durga Gopal from Delhi had navigated two bouts of aggressive cancer. In 2010, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband had just passed away, and her children were living in the US and Germany.
When bills started mounting up, she had to sell her house in Delhi to be able to afford treatment. Despite being on her own and away from her relatives (who lived in Hyderabad), the retired bank employee put on a brave face and decided to undergo the excruciating chemotherapy process by herself. “Before you succumb to the disease, you will succumb to your negative thoughts,” Durga notes in a conversation with The Better India.
After a month of radiation and five years of medication, a large lump was removed, and she was declared cancer-free. But seven years later, cancer came back – spreading to her lungs. This time, it was more aggressive and painful, as it was at ‘Stage Four’. Generally at this stage, the chances of survival are slim. Unwilling to give up, Durga moved in with her brother in Hyderabad to deal with the situation.
Though another round of medication and radiation took a toll on her mental, financial and emotional well being, Durga did eventually win her battle against cancer.
It has been four years since then. Cancer failed to deter her spirit, and instead, she has become a beacon of hope for many survivors like herself, by providing counselling. In this time, she has also raised several lakh rupees in donations for them.
Please Note: You can help Durga raise funds here.
The spirit to fight
Living with a disease like cancer can drain a person mentally and physically. Shortness of breath, weakness, vomiting, and headaches become a part of your daily routine. In between all this, clinging to hope and positivity can be challenging. The disease can break a person’s spirit and even end their will to live.
“Having a fighting spirit and mental strength to deal with this is a must,” Durga says. “I was fortunate to find both these through friends and family. Even when the doctors said I am at stage four, I was not scared of death, as, by this time, I was already in my late sixties. Presently, I do not have cancer in my body, but doctors say it can come back anytime. Instead of worrying about it, I am trying to live my life like before,” she says.
While she does not have to go to the hospital for chemo, Durga is required to inject certain medications every 21 days from the hospital. And each session costs up to Rs 40,000.
“Cancer treatment is very expensive, and up until now, I was using my insurance money to cover the expenses. But now, that has also stopped, so I have to dig into my savings. But there are many people I come across during hospital visits who have to borrow money from their families or take loans so that they can live one more day. I wanted to help such patients and also find a way to keep myself occupied,” she adds.
Using her retirement time effectively, Durga wrote a book ‘Rendevouz with Cancer’ giving a glimpse into her journey. After its publication, she decided to work in the Omega Hospital, where she was getting her treatment from. Since she did not have a medical degree, she took up voluntary work.
With her oncologist Dr Palanki Dattatreya, she started going on rounds and talking to the patients. She worked here for nine months before moving onto Soumya Comprehensive Cancer Centre with him in Secunderabad.
Her work and book made her noticeable in the cancer community, and in 2020, she was invited to speak as a cancer survivor at a global online seminar during cancer awareness month.
Members of a US-based organisation called Myna Foundation, who were also part of the seminar, approached her to organise a fundraising event in Hyderabad.
“The organisation was formed by NRIs to collect money from friends and family to help cancer patients in India 12 years ago. They asked me to join and raise funds for patients at Omega Hospital. We managed to sponsor 50 mammograms for breast cancer patients from lower economic families. Seeing the response, they allotted Rs 1,00,000 more to sponsor chemo sessions for ten patients,” she says.
“Rs 20 Lakh in 16 days…”
Taking inspiration from these two fundraisers, Durga decided to treat patients of other types of cancer as well. With help from Soumya Hospital, her former bank employees, family and friends, she raised close to Rs 20 lakh in 16 days. So far, they have been able to sponsor treatments for more than 50 patients.
Raising funds and volunteering in the hospital may be tiring for a septuagenarian, but for Durga, it is a way to overcome her anxieties and fears. She derives strength from every person she interacts with.
“Sometimes when I learn about other patients’ problems, I feel lucky. I feel happy to help. Some of the families who have left the hospital call me even now. Recently, I got a call from two daughters whose mother had cancer. They thanked me for counselling her and helping her deal with the situation emotionally,” she says.
Dr Dattatreya, who is now the chief of Medical Oncology Services, is inspired by Durga’s zeal to live. He says, “From day one, she has had a positive attitude. She is a rare breed who is helping much deal with this deadly disease in multiple ways. She is not a worrier, but a warrior.”