Amidst this gruelling lockdown imposed to slow the spread of Covid, 32-year-old Aditi (name changed) has to step out of her apartment in Andheri, Mumbai, for chemotherapy. On March 19, a day after her birthday and five days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for the lockdown, she had received her biopsy reports from a cancer specialty hospital in Navi Mumbai.
Something that initially looked like an innocuous sinus under the eye had developed into stage III Adamantinoma Ewing Sarcoma, an extremely rare cancer of the head and neck. Ever since, Aditi has had to commute an exhausting 50 km from her apartment, five days a week, to Navi Mumbai for treatment.
Her day typically begins at 7.30 am, when she inconspicuously walks out of her apartment in disguise, wearing a shawl and a cap to cover her head. She has lost most of her hair after the first session of chemotherapy. “I have heard stories of discrimination against doctors and nurses, in the last few weeks,” she said. “As a patient, I feel even more vulnerable should my neighbours get to know about my frequent visits to the hospital.”
Fearing that her family could be ostracised in their apartment complex because of the fear that she could contract the coronavirus in hospital, Aditi heads out every day with a shopping bag, as if she’s headed out to buy groceries.
Her anxiety, she admits, has been fuelled by incidents around the country of Covid-19 patients being stigmatised, rather than being a reflection of her neighbour’s attitudes. She notes that the Mumbai municipal corporation during a routine check-up asked residents of every household in her neighbourhood to share their medical conditions on their apartment complex WhatsApp group. Aditi’s neighbours, assuringly, have not yet reacted to her disclosure about having cancer.
Once out of sight from her apartment, she gets into a car provided by her company, strategically parked 100 metres away. For the past two months, Aditi has been exempted from all work responsibilities so that she can concentrate on this critical battle. However, with firms laying off employees due to the economic slowdown, she has continued to work through this period.
The routine of a regular job, amidst the turmoil of the cancer treatment and chemotherapy, brings to her a sense of normalcy and something to look forward to.
A lonely battle
A letter from Aditi’s oncologist authorising her chemotherapy ensures a hassle-free commute. When she reaches the hospital at 8 am, its unusually empty, except for some people at the 24-hour pharmacy. Most hospitals through India have restricted the admission of patients, authorising only emergency treatments like chemotherapy and dialysis.
Fearing the spread of infection, even relatives of patients are asked to wait outside the hospital complex, making it a lonely time for those being treated. Aditi’s elderly parents had flown in from Kolkata to take care of her, just in time for the lockdown. She had decided not to tell them about her illness until the results of the biopsy, fearing that travel could put them at risk of Covid-19. It is for the same reason that she prevents them from accompanying her to the hospital.
Having already completed two chemotherapy cycles of five sessions each, Aditi is used to the drill. It is mandatory for every patient to undergo a Covid-19 test, a swab deftly inserted up the nostrils, before enrolling for a new cycle. She is inundated with liability forms, warning that her treatment could be stopped abruptly if she contracts the virus.
Due to the low immunity levels of cancer patients, the hospital is also being cautious in repeatedly calling them in, fearing the chances of complications due to the coronavirus could be greater than cancer itself. While oncologists have resorted to having telephonic treatments in most cases, some patients are being shifted to “light chemotherapy sessions” to prevent a further reduction in immunity.
Aditi said that the looming uncertainty does not bother her. “There are times when I am worried about contracting the virus more than my cancer, especially with my ageing parents at home,” she said. “If my chemotherapy is postponed due to the lockdown, then I don’t have to step out. Maybe it’s for the best.”
She tries to sleep through the actual chemotherapy that lasts for an exhausting seven to eight hours. The torrent of drugs induced into the veins leads to a need for frequent discharge. Since the cleanliness of the washrooms have not been up to standard with the hospital running on minimum staff, she restricts her visit to them.
Aditi claims that the overwhelming physical discomfort had initially felt like an out-of-body experience. With her skin darkening, the hair fall and the body aches, it took her a while to understand the implications of the treatment.
“At times when it feels like I can’t take the pain anymore, the atmosphere at home keeps me going,” she said.
Her family has been her biggest support system through this ordeal, she said, helping her hold up.
On her ride back home from a taxing day, her driver is a pleasant distraction, averting her thoughts from another session of chemotherapy. A migrant from Uttar Pradesh, he is frustrated that he isn’t unable to travel home in this lockdown. But that doesn’t stop him from empathetically assuring Aditi that she will get through this.
He has been a comforting presence through this harrowing time. The tumultuous period has cast a question mark over Aditi’s immediate future. She comes back to the confines of her home every night, recharging her will to repeat it all over again tomorrow.
Shrikkanth Govindarajan is a writer and photographer from Mumbai. You can follow his work here.