Aaroogya: a movement that wants to spread awareness and fight breast cancer all over India
My name is Priyanjali Datta and I am 24 years old. I was born in Kolkata, but I was brought up in Shillong, the so called “Scotland of East" and I have been shaping my dreams in New Delhi ever since I was 15. I have been living alone from that early age, supported all along by my super cool father. I am a trained classical dancer and singer, taught by my mother Jhuma Datta. I have been performing in various platforms across the country from the age of 3.
My idol is my father, Sanjit Datta: an employee at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. A man way ahead of his time. A true liberal. His daily training for me in the morning included news reading, extempore speech, debating and reciting poems. In the evenings, I would have to write about random topics and bedtime stories. I grew up to become a medic by profession, and I could have opened a fancy clinic, sat comfortably and treated patients, earning 6 times more of what I can manage now. But I have chosen differently.
It all changed one night when the sudden news came that my mother had been diagnosed with a rare pre-cancer blood condition. A wave of grave shock and sorrow broke into our family. I was alone with her and on that same day I had just finished my final year exam. The news just tore me apart. I tried to be happy and strong in front of her, but then one day I just started crying – randomly on the streets, in the shops, everywhere, and I couldn’t make myself stop. That was the day I took it upon myself to create a meaningful concept to fight a common, yet dreaded disease which is snatching away so many mums from their kids. I had lost my grandma too due to cancer.
I had promised her I would save the world from cancer, as a kid, with eyes full of dreams. I saw people were already doing remarkable work in spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene, cervical cancer, and other non-communicable diseases. All I wanted to do was to create a ripple in the field of Public Health Domain, which was extremely neglected in India. Therefore, as a professional model from college days, I created a fashion society called “Bakulam” in 2012 to promote breast cancer awareness. Together with college friends, we attended various national fashion shows to perform our signature breast cancer awareness choreographed theme. I felt the absolute absence of awareness on the commonest cancer affecting 1 in 8 women in the developing world. The irony is, breast cancer is absolutely curable if detected early. But early detection is only possible with self-awareness and self-examination.
In India, 8 out of 10 women do not survive for more than 5 years of treatment, due to late diagnosis. The societal taboo in our country of body-shaming, unawareness, myths, shyness and, most importantly, ignorance are by far the most common reasons for late diagnosis.
What drives me to make a difference is my abstract, critical thinking and a childlike passion in wanting to shape and implement something that would leave a mark for the benefit of mankind. As a 24 years old, I feel unbound to the regular, conventional path that people take as their "career path". I believe in being alive and not get entangled in an everyday routine, working for somebody else.
So, when our awareness campaign “Aaroogya” began in January 2017, there was a total lack of awareness in India about a particular molecular form of breast cancer, called “triple negative”, which is more difficult to treat than other types of breast cancers. Notably, it affects younger women.
Aaroogya started its movement in Meghalaya (Shillong), North-East India: my native place. North-East India has the highest cancer index in India due to higher consumption of tobacco and the inhalation of harmful metals like cadmium and arsenic. Then, we expanded to the West Bengal region. We had to work incessantly with a much larger vision and without a single penny running down our pockets. Actually, I had to ask for loans, in order to bring forward these projects and reach these remote villages with a team of 10 research analysts, who are all equally driven by passion. In fact, in the name of this project, they all left their lucrative, fancy, city jobs to go and work in real rural locations where healthcare is absolutely absent.
Aaroogya’s optimized solutions want to bridge the large gap between high-end disease prevention and cure and the existing rural Indian healthcare. Our goal is to provide patients with early detection methods. Therefore, Aaroogya has achieved a strong propaganda to establish the concept of early detection as the first step towards fighting breast cancer.
In 60 months, we intend to reach 90,000 underprivileged women in 600 rural locations, in partnership and collaboration with stakeholders such as Central and State Government, Local Administrations, Private Primary Healthcare service providers and their units, UNDP (SDPs), WHO, UNICEF, and other Non- Profit Organizations.
What we want to do, is to do “tele-medicine” for our patients in these villages, using telecommunication technologies to bridge the gap between patients in rural India and doctors in metro cities.
However, limited internet accessibility, limited resources, and the expertise required to develop a robust “tele-medicine” device, constitute a huge barrier to our work. Fortunately, a friend of mine is currently developing a device based on IoT system, which will record the vitals of the patients, will be easy to carry door to door by our employees and will not require an external platform like Zoom or Skype for doctor-patient interactions.
However, we still have a long way ahead of us. But, as they say, we fail 9 times before we rise up the 10th time and succeed or don’t succeed; it’s just a part of the journey.
There have been many obstacles, primarily due to my high expectations! However, with the immense support of my family and friends, as long as we continue to make positive progress, I am willing to face any obstacle that may come our way. One thing that really keeps me going, is the villagers themselves, who, thanks to Aaroogya, were finally able to see a doctor for the first time in their lives.
If we were to be given the prize money, we would definitely use it to implement the technology we use, the services we offer in rural areas of India and introduce new services, such as a medical equipped van to go around the villages once a month. Also, I would really glady be able to compensate the hardworking research analysts who work so passionately with me to prevent women from dying because of a late breast cancer detection.