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!!