After a sample study in one of Haryana's major childhood cancer treatment facilities at Pt. B.D. Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS), Rohtak, NGO Cankids Kidscan has found that girls in the state seem to be facing discrimination, as compared to boys, in access to modern therapy and compliance with treatment.
Some parents didn't want to inform their relatives or neighbours about their child's ailment as it could mar the marriage prospects of their other children; some believed it was futile trying to treat an "incurable" disease; and many opted for alternative and 'magic' remedies spurning free treatment, said Ritu Bhalla, 22, a two-time blood cancer survivor and Girl Child Cancer Ambassador, who anchored the study.
Between 2006 and 2013, one in three children at the diagnosis stage was a girl but only one in 13 cancer survivors was a girl after seven years, said Ramandeep Arora, an oncologist who does honorary outreach work at Cankids.
"About 14 percent of girls abandoned the treatment as compared to six percent of boys," Bhalla, who has been personally chasing parents and motivating them to resume treatment of their girls, told IANS.
In other words, boys are twice as likely to make it to the end of the treatment in Haryana as compared to girls, said Arora, sharing details about the study that involved examining data and interviewing families which had left the treatment half-way, as well as survivors.
The Cankids team's task was uphill in a state where the sex ratio is 877 females per 1,000 males.
The team met Khushi from Bahadurgarh who was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 when she was three and has only now completed her treatment, though with difficulty.
A candid admission by her father told the sad story: "We completed her treatment without disclosing her ailment to relatives and neighbours."
Khushmeet, an eight-year-old girl from Karnal diagnosed with bone tumor in 2012, was registered for treatment at PGI but her father abandoned her treatment after four months as he feared that she would die.
"We convinced her father to send her back for treatment. I cited my own case to tell him about the survival possibilities," said Bhalla.
The abandonment had resulted in relapsed malignancy in Khushmeet but she now has completed her treatment, said her farmer father Mahinder Singh, lauding Cankids' efforts.
Bhalla was detected with cancer at four years and her parents too had abandoned her treatment for seven years. Today she leads the teenage and young adult childhood cancer group of Cankids - Kidscan Konnect. She is convinced that girl survivors like her must lead by example.
Several girls who survived cancer in Haryana were contacted by Bhalla and her team. Like her, they all agreed to work as brand ambassadors for children with cancer but requested that their names not be made public out of fear of the social stigma that their medical history may invite for their families.
Her team, however, managed to motivate some to join her as Girl Child Ambassadors for Haryana and India.
Neha Girdhar, a 19-year-old Rohtak resident and survivor of cancer in the leg, was initially hesitant to talk about her cancer ordeal due to fear of complications while looking for a match but has now joined the campaign.
Her father Ashok Girdhar said: "We are happy our daughter is a part of the campaign."
Priyanka, 12, a resident of Hisar who completed her treatment in 2009 and had the full support of her parents to her continued studies during treatment, is proud to be a girl child cancer ambassador.
"I believe cancer is curable when treated in time and at the right centre," she said.
Poonam Bagai, a cancer survivor and chairperson of Cankids...Kidscan, said: "We have launched a 'Bring Girl Children For Cancer Treatment and Help Them to Stay With it' campaign."
"Fewer girls were coming forward for treatment and their families were not keen to talk about their girl children's cancer or to treat it, largely because of lack of awareness, stigma and lack of forums to face issues," she said.
Bagai said as a first step, the NGO would provide financial support to girl cancer patients in Haryana for drugs, transport, accommodation and any other expenses in the cancer treatment journey and set up peer groups and parent forums for support.
Bhalla, who is in Hong Kong to present a paper on Gender Bias - A girl survivor's Perspective, said: "Being able to support other patients - specifically girls - and encourage therapy compliance is central to my cause as a girl cancer survivor."
Air India has provided free air tickets to Hong Kong for Bhalla and Sonal Sharma, a Delhi girl survivor's mother, to attend an event on pediatric cancer.
Pankaj Srivastava, ED, commercial, Air India, said: "Air India has always been in the forefront to support social causes and takes pride in partnering Cankids by offering travel sponsorship to its team to enable them attend the 45th Congress of the International Society of Pediatric Oncology."