On Monday, Sunita Tomar, the face of India’s anti-tobacco campaign, wrote her life’s last letter — to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In it, she spoke about how a surgery to remove a tumour from her jaws and cheeks saved her life but left her permanently disfigured. “The surgery saved my life, but also destroyed it. My face could not be restored like before,” she wrote in Hindi.
Two days later, Tomar, a mother of two, became just another cancer-related statistic as she died at her home in Madhya Pradesh’s Mainpuri village. A doctor who rushed to her home at 4 am found her breathless. People who knew her said she had become so “frail” that nothing could be done to save her.
Tomar, in her letter, spoke about her journey from a healthy 22-year-old who had just started consuming tobacco to a 28-year-old ravaged by mouth cancer. “I can only consume liquids now,” she wrote to the PM.
She also spoke about BJP MP Dilip Gandhi’s statement in his capacity as chairman of the Lok Sabha committee of subordinate legislations that there are no Indian studies linking tobacco to cancer. “Recently Dilip Gandhi wrote to the health ministry asking for the notification on bigger warnings on tobacco packets to be kept in abeyance. I was shocked that people in such high posts can be so irresponsible. Bigger warnings can probably save some innocent lives like mine… I hope you will also take up the cause of tobacco. I hope you will intervene and ensure… a tobacco-free India,” Tomar wrote.
Tomar’s decision to become the face of the anti-tobacco campaign — replacing another cancer victim, Mukesh Harane — was driven by a desire to prevent others from making the same mistake as her. Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck oncosurgeon and department head at Tata Hospital, said she agreed after seeing other cancer patients at the hospital’s OPD department in August 2013.
“She realised how harmful tobacco is and decided to spread the message. She had mouth cancer and she signified the rampant tobacco use among young women,” said Chaturvedi.
In the course of her treatment, Tomar and her husband, a driver, had to leave their leave their children at home while they rented a room in Mumbai. In the past two years, the family spent Rs 3 lakh on treatment. A part of that, her husband said, was “borrowed from friends and relatives”.
On Sunday, days before her death, Tomar said she wanted to be with her children, and left the hospital. “Sunita came to us three days ago with breathing difficulty and weight loss. She had lost 12 kg. We were suspecting a relapse — spread of the disease to other parts of the body could trigger weight loss. Though she is only one of the 10 lakh Indians who die every year because of tobacco, I am sure her campaign must have saved millions from picking up the habit,” said Chaturvedi.