Sunita Tomar, 27, mouth cancer survivor and face of the country’s anti-tobacco campaign, is back in hospital. Doctors suspect a relapse, something that is always more aggressive than the initial bout and almost always fatal.
Sunita is the woman with a scarred mouth who tells how cancer shattered her happy life with her husband and two children. She replaced the emaciated Mukesh Harane as the face of the battle against tobacco last August, a year after she had been told she had finally defeated the disease. There was a caveat though — her mouth cancer had a 50 per cent chance of coming back.
She was taken back to Tata Memorial Hospital three days ago. “She came to us with breathing difficulty and weight loss. She could barely walk. The weight loss could be because of a spread of the disease to other parts of the body. We suspect a relapse. The five-year survival chances are only 20 per cent. The disease, when it comes back, usually comes back with a vengeance,” says Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial, who had treated Sunita the first time and among those who had encouraged her to go public with her disfigured face and tragic story.
Appearing at the unveiling of the health ministry’s anti-tobacco campaign, Sunita had said, “I want that nobody should suffer as I have suffered. I started consuming tobacco at 22 years. It came in Rs 2 pouches. In four years there was a blister, diagnosed as cancer.”
Sunita, wife of a driver working out of a Mumbai suburb, had required removal of an entire cheek and jaw followed by plastic surgery. She underwent toxic chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She went through a phase when she could only drink water with great pain.
Once hers became the face of the anti-tobacco campaign, her address was kept closely guarded for fear of the tobacco industry reaching her and dissuading her.