In one year, we will have a cure for cancer, the Union minister of state for AYUSH, Shripad Naik, announced last week.
The cure will come from yoga and has been developed at the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, a deemed university in Bengaluru. It is being tested by the Ayush ministry, said Naik, which looks after the promotion and development of the health benefits of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy.
A year ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily for me the cancer was at a very early stage. The course of treatment recommended for me was an operation followed by radiotherapy. After that, an annual check up every year for five years.
Cancer, to put it as simplistically as possible, is when cells in your body start mutating and multiplying – “cell growth without barriers”, as Siddhartha Mukherjee puts it in his seminal book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. That is, your body turns against you. However, no one cancer behaves like another. The treatments for breast cancer are not the same as the treatment for stomach cancer or leukaemia or skin cancer for that matter. Indeed, as I discovered as I met fellow travellers on this journey from which there is no “cure” as yet, there are a variety of approaches to breast cancer as well.
So it is curious that a government minister should speak of “a cure” for a disease that is myriad in the way it manifests itself and still baffling in its behaviour for scientists and doctors all over the world. No chemotherapy involved, was the other ministerial pronouncement. And yet, chemotherapy – which is the cancer name for medications – is not the path that everyone takes. I did not. My mother before me did not either and she had her bout two decades ago.
And then there’s yoga. I am a great admirer of yoga and a practitioner. I have found it extremely useful for calming my mind through the use of my body. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the aim is to reach the highest level of consciousness. As yoga is practised today, however, it is the body that is held up over the mind. In what way will yoga provide a cure for cancer? Is it through teaching the patient to control his or her body through meditation techniques or will cancer victims be prescribed a few rounds of bhujangasana or surya namaskar? Will it work at all stages of cancer? Will someone in the last moments of the disease, eking out their days on morphine, be brought back to a full and marvellous life? Is the AYUSH ministry trained to check this cure? Are there peer reviews? Will there be clinical tests?
Do I sound unreasonably sceptical? Maybe I have an excuse here. From almost the second you make it public that you suffer from a disease that has no “cure” the way tuberculosis has a cure, you are inundated with advice. It is bad enough that you have to deal with the fact of your own mortality in a real and not a philosophical sense, but then you have to try and trawl through endless suggestions. Is lime juice a cure or not? If you stop wearing bras, will you never get breast cancer? Did no one get cancer before cell phones were invented? If you eat one blueberry a day, will all your tumours vanish? If you stop eating dairy will your cells stop mutating now and forever?
Add to this the endless list of things which are carcinogenic and which apply to everyone. The link between cancer and tobacco is the strongest but almost everything else makes you feel you are playing Russian roulette with your chances of a brush with cancer.
Cancer patients can go into remission when the disease seems ousted for now but there is no guarantee that the multiplication of cells will never start again. At least no one credible has guaranteed this before.
I am curious, therefore, about this cure.
And most of all, I am angry. I have had it with announcements of cures which then tell you that they will be ready in 40 years. I am angry that people talk loosely about cures when so far there is nothing close to a magic button for all cancers. I am angry that I have so little information about this cure from yoga. Will it be like the yoga teacher’s claims that yoga can cure homosexuality, as if it is a disease?
You might argue that I only have to wait a year to be cancer free with a government-stamped warranty that it will never ever come back and I will die of something else.
Or I might caution you about raising false hopes in people who sometimes have only hope to live on.
Ranjona Banerji is a journalist whose Twitter handle is @ranjona.