The new face of India’s anti-tobacco campaign is 27, a mother of two and a cancer survivor. Sunita, the protagonist of the latest campaign launched by the Health Ministry to spread cancer awareness, is also defying odds at several levels, aware that her mouth cancer has a 50 per cent chance of coming back.
That’s precisely why she wants to deter others from making the same mistake as her. Sunita will replace 24-year-old Mukesh Harane, whose face could be seen on billboards and anti-tobacco trailers in cinema halls for the past couple of years. While Harane died before the campaign started, Sunita is being pitched as a survivor.
Sunita, who lives with her children and husband, a driver, in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, admitted that she had apprehensions about agreeing to become the face of the campaign — given her age and her socio-economic background. During counselling sessions before the campaign, she was told that her disfigured face — she has now started hiding that part — would be seen on billboards as well as small and big screens across the country.
“But I want that nobody should suffer what I have suffered. I started consuming tobacco when I was 22. It came in Rs 2 pouches. In four years, I discovered a blister, which was diagnosed as cancer,” Sunita says.
Her doctor Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, says that despite a painful treatment, Sunita kept up her spirits for the sake of her children. “She was shattered when I first saw her. She had a very advanced cancer of the mouth and required removal of the entire cheek and jaw followed by plastic surgery. She accepted it with courage because she wanted to live for her young children. She underwent toxic chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She went through a phase where she could only drink water with great pain. After going through this trauma, she realised the harm tobacco had caused her. That’s when she volunteered for the ‘voice of tobacco victims campaign’, which aims to bring down the very industry that sold them cancer,” Dr Chaturvedi told The Sunday Express.
Though the treatment at Tata Memorial Hospital was free, the family spent close to Rs 3 lakh in the three months she was being treated in Mumbai, depleting their savings. Seeing his wife suffer, Sunita’s husband gave up tobacco.
Anti-tobacco activists and medical experts feel that getting her to sign up for the campaign was only half the battle. Her real test will begin when the campaign goes on air and people start to identify her. There is also a fear that the tobacco industry could try to dissuade her from continuing her efforts.
For now, Sunita can only hope the cancer does not return. As Dr Chaturvedi ominously puts it, “No one survives when the disease comes back.”