Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nepal 2

The strike finally ended late on Friday night while we were still on the trek.  We flew back to Kathmandu on Sunday afternoon and I quickly set up appointments for Monday and Tuesday with the connections that I had there.

I first went to see Dr. Sudip Shrestha at the Bhaktapur Cancer Hospital.  BCH is the only charitable cancer hospital in Nepal.  This is the only cancer hospital in Nepal that will provide free treatment to poor cancer patients.  Everyone I spoke with about cancer in Nepal mentioned Dr. Shrestha, he works at multiple hospitals, and with the Nepal Cancer Relief Society.  Dr. Chaturvedi in India had introduced me to him.  He graciously took time out of his incredibly busy day to talk to me and provide me with names and contact information of some women who where breast cancer survivors and trying to start a breast cancer survivor support group at  the Om Hospital in Kathmandu.  His assistant Bal Keshari took then me on a tour of the hospital.  It is a small, taxed facility, but the care is warm, compassionate and capable.

I next went to meet with a wonderful woman, Dr. Harinder Thapliya.  Harinder was introduced to me through an old friend Lance (who I was lucky enough to recently reconnect with) who works with her son Bikash.  She is also a survivor of ovarian cancer, she was 1C and was misdiagnosed in Nepal.  Harinder was a professor of women's studies at the university in Kathmandu, she was 50, she was losing weight, and wasn't feeling or looking quite herself.  She went to the gynecologist, they removed a cyst, but didn't do any biopsy.  She took the cyst with her to Delhi, where her sister is a doctor.  She had the cyst tested twice, and it was revealed that it was malignant.  She underwent a radical hysterectomy at Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute, and endured 6 rounds of chemo.  She really suffered from the chemo, it was incredibly hard for her, she had all the terrible awful side effects in a very pronounced way.  After the last round of chemo, she just knew it was all over and that she would be ok.  It was heartbreaking for her to have cancer, but she had great support from her husband and children.  She also armed herself with as much information as she could about her cancer and treatment so that she could make informed and rational decisions, and had great faith in her own strength and in God.

The next day I was able to meet with 2 wonderful women at Om Hospital in Kathmandu.  Mrs. Siddhi Chand, and Mrs. Anju Sharma.  They are both breast cancer survivors and have been trying to start a breast cancer support group at the hospital.  Two days a week they go to the hospital to talk to patients and their care givers and give them moral support, comfort and share their experiences with them.  They are doing this with no resources, no help, just because they so strongly want to help others.  They are very brave and beautiful women.

Mrs. Chand was fortunate to be visiting her daughter in Hawaii, helping her take care of her granddaughter, when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at age 52.  She had had biopsies in Nepal, but they were all negative.  She had a radical mastectomy, chemo and radiation there.  It was very, very difficult, but with the great support and love of her daughter Rebecca, she not just overcame it, she feels that it made her a better person.  A stronger, more patient, person.  Before having cancer she was nervous and afraid of life, but now she feels that she can handle anything.  Life goes on and in fact gets better!!

Anju Sharma found a small lump in her breast, went to the doctor and was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at age 48 in 2004.  She didn't know what to do, she kept it to herself because she didn't want to upset her family.  She finally told them once she knew the entire course of her treatment.  The most important thing to her is family, they were her constant source of love and support.  She had all of her treatment in Nepal and is a healthy, happy, lovely woman.  She is an inspiration to everyone!

The last woman I met with Mrs. Sandhya Laxmasada was introduced to me through Shatki Gurung from the Nepal Cancer Relief Society http://www.ncrs.org.np/.  The NCRS is a fantastic organization working to help control, prevent and cure cancer in Nepal through cancer screening and public awareness services.  Mrs. Laxmasada, was also unfortunately misdiagnosed for 2 years in Pokhara.  The doctor's were telling her she had gastritis, or gallstones, or gallbladder problems. She never gave up, she went to Bhaktapur where she was given a colonoscopy and she was finally diagnosed with colon cancer.  She felt as though she had fallen from the roof, she was so depressed, she really thought she was dying.  But her family was so encouraging and supportive, and her husband cooked for her and took care of her.  They nursed her back to health after her surgeries and chemo.  Now she volunteers to help others less fortunate, she is an attorney and has restructured her whole life to do this. She fights to get better nutrition and rights for the poor,  and to decrease violence against women. She wants people to know that you can recover and thrive, she is living proof that cancer can be cured.

I feel that I need to talk a bit about Nepal, because for me the story here is not just about the brave and strong survivors that I met,  but it is also about the disparities I saw here.  There are 30,000 NGO's in Nepal, that's right 30,000 in a country roughly the size of Arkansas, with a population of about 29 million.  That is 1 NGO for each 1,000 people, yet the unemployment rate is 42%,  literacy at 55%, electricity is only available for 12 hours a day in Kathmandu (and even less if at all in outlying areas),  clean water is available for tourists and the more well off, but I saw huge lines of people waiting to get water at public wells. There is barely a health care system in place, and what exists is underfunded and overwhelmed.  The basic needs of the people are certainly not being met by their government or the well meaning NGO's. There is a lot of western money pouring into Nepal,  but where exactly is it going?  What I noticed about some people here was their skepticism at first about why I was there and what my motivation was. I was really confused by it.  I thought maybe it was a bit of a language barrier, but what I finally realized was that it has to do with all the NGO's, the corrupt government, false promises and little to no results.  I would be a total skeptic too.  Once it became clear to them that I was also a cancer survivor, that British Airways only gave me the flights and everything else was out of my own pocket, that my motivation was to only try to help, they were the warmest, kindest, most helpful people you could meet, I could physically see their body language change and their defenses drop. In my opinion, the government of Nepal must do more to help it's people and make them the number one priority, until they actually do that, no amount of foreign aid is going to make any difference there.  It is a beautiful country with wonderful people and the government needs to actually spend the funds given to it on the services necessary to help these people.  I hope this will soon be the case for Nepal.  My hope is to return there one day and see the Nepalese people truly benefiting from the foreign aid that the government receives!!

Saturday, May 15, 2010


The Maoist strike brought life in Nepal to a standstill.  As tourists we at least had a bus that would take us to and from the airport, and my hotel (Hotel Courtyard) took great care of all of their guests, they made it so easy for all of us.  But for the Nepalese people it was incredibly difficult.  They had to walk everywhere to do anything.  They only had 2 hours a day when they could buy any supplies or food.  Food was getting scarce and very expensive.  You could feel that tensions were starting to mount in Kathmandu.  Since I wasn't able to get to anyone to interview them, I decided to fly out to Pokhara with another woman at my hotel, Cat Hughes and do a little 4 day trek.  Here are a few shots from the hike, we had an amazing time, and I am so lucky to have a made a new dear friend in the process!


Monday, May 3, 2010


I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday afternoon, the Maoist strike is in full force.  They allowed some tourist buses to bring us into town from the airport and drop us off near Thamel, my hotel had someone waiting there to guide me to them.  

My contact and new friend from the Cancer Council Nepal, Shambhu Kadariya came to the hotel to welcome me to Nepal with his nephew Ashim.  They led me on a walking tour of the city.  It's great, what is normally a chaotic frenzy of trucks, motorbikes and cars, was a pedestrian way. Most people don't get to experience Kathmandu like this!

We went to one of the Maoist rallies, everyone was smiling and laughing, it was super peaceful.  They had a special dance performance and singing.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, there was no tension on the streets at all.  People let me get up close so I could take some shots.

Here are a few more sights from my tour.....the store are open from 6-8 every night so can get food and supplies.  The owners of my hotel, Michelle and Pujan took everyone to Pujan's uncle's restaurant last night for a newari degustation.  It was absolutely delicious and a great way to meet the other people staying at the hotel.  Tomorrow I am off for another tour with Shambhu....it's difficult to do any work until this strike eases up or ends.   In the mean time I am really enjoying a few days of sight seeing! 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

On to Nepal

I just interviewed and photographed my final contact here in New Delhi.  There are so many wonderful survivor stories to tell, but so far the one common thread here is that everyone has accepted having cancer as their fate or karem (this is the original spelling for karma).  This is what God, or whatever higher power you believe in has chosen for you, this was a given across the board.  For the most part they also feel that cancer has changed them in a positive way.  It has made them a better person, a more compassionate person, a more patient person, a wiser person.  It has enriched the quality of their lives.  They have a greater appreciation for the world around them and their place in it.  I will be forever grateful to these amazing women for the gifts they have given to me, their time, their wisdom, their strength and their courage will enrich my life every day!  They are all so very beautiful!  Tomorrow I head to Nepal to hear more stories and meet more incredible people.  I am truly blessed!


Saturday, May 1, 2010

1 day left in India

I am really enjoying my time here, I left the hotel yesterday and have moved in with Brig. S.K. Malhotra, who is a long time friend of my dear friends Jean and John Everett.  He has kindly taken me into his lovely home.  We had dinner last night at his club with his beautiful family....they were having a birthday party and very graciously included me.  Everyone here has been so generous, kind and incredibly hospitable. I really cannot wait to come back!

Friday I spent the day visiting the AIIMS government hospital, a huge complex of hospitals, I mean really huge.  I will NEVER complain about waiting to see a doctor again.  I can't possibly describe the conditions. Thousands of people waiting, spilling out onto the sidewalks and grounds.  I felt that it was inappropriate to photograph there, there were far too many people really suffering and I did not want them to feel any more uncomfortable than they were.  I was in the cancer hospital with a group of women from Cancer Sahyog.  This is one of the many places that they volunteer offering their support and advice to cancer patients.  I was introduced to two amazing women cancer survivors there.

The first thing you notice about Usha Ohri is her kind and warm spirit, it feels as if you have always known her.  She was a widow with an 11 year old daughter and diagnosed with stage 4 acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her in-laws had thrown her and her daughter out after her husband died, and her daughter was 2, if she had a son, things would have been different.  She fought for 4 years, receiving endless rounds of chemo, radiation to the brain and spine, she could not eat or speak for months on end.  She had nothing, no money, no family.  Her mother refused to allow her brother to donate his bone marrow to her, because he was more important than Usha.  But she did have faith in life and in herself.  She kept fighting for her daughter, she endured everything for her.  The government came to her rescue and sent her to America for a bone marrow transplant.  This was the last treatment she could have, she put her fate into God's hands, and the treatment worked.  She is now 63 and she considers herself very lucky to have had cancer, it has given her a higher purpose.  She devotes her life to helping others with cancer.  She tirelessly works for her "family"Cancer Sahyog, the Indian Cancer Society and CanKids...KidsCan.

It would be impossible to ignore Poonam Bagai in any situation, first of all, she wouldn't let you.  And it is just this aspect of her personality that has helped her to create a most amazing organization,  CanKids...Kidscan www.cankidsindia.org   She was diagnosed in 2000 at age 38 with colon cancer.  She was married with 2 young sons and living in Poland.  She endured 3 major surgeries, a colostomy, 9 rounds of chemo, a reverse colostomy, and severe depression.  She is a big believer that things happen for a reason, that you have to go through everything to get where you are now, "mantre ucharan", that everything leads to one point.  She moved back to India and decided that she really wanted to do something to help other people.  She started to volunteer with ICS and Cancer Sahyog.  She decided that she really wanted to help children and their families, and created CanKids.   Her passion and determination are infectious and have made it into an extremely successful organization.  I was lucky enough to meet some of the brave and beautiful children they help.

Here are three very brave young men, Sonu and Chandon are both survivors of leukemia, they endured 3 years of chemo and now they are volunteering at CanKids to help other children and their families.  Shashank has brain cancer, has had surgery and has just finished his second round of chemo.  Before he got cancer he wanted to join the army when he grew up, now he wants to become a doctor.