Issue :   
January 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         January 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Jan' 2018


Fight against cancer

Purnima Sharma

In 2013, when the Dubaibased Premi Mathew met seven-year-old Dylan who was sporting long tresses at a wedding in her family home in Kerala, she was intrigued. "Since he was visiting from the US, I thought maybe he was making some kind of a hippie-like fashion statement," she remembers. Only, Dylan wasn't doing anything of the sort -- he was growing his hair to donate it to a society that makes good-quality wigs for those cancer patients who can't afford them. The 53-year-old teacher of marketing at a college in Dubai was suitably inspired set up Hair for Hope, a campaign that encourages people to donate hair. It became a subsidiary of her 'Protect Your Mom' campaign that urges young children to regularly remind their mothers to check for lumps and early signs of breast cancer and going to the doctor's for an annual checkup.
Mathew has since been a one- (wo)man army who is working to create awareness about cancer through these campaigns...and in a tete a tete, she says, her efforts have started paying off.

Tell us about your journey with cancer awareness...what inspired you to take it up?

Cancer is that dreaded word that no one wants to even think about. And it is only when it hits you or someone in your family that you realize that it is not something that happens only to others. And, seven years ago, it hit a family-member of mine. And that is when I realized that cancer can happen to anyone at any age. In fact, around 1/8 ladies are at risk and close to 500,000 of them die every year just because they ignore the early signs of cancer. These details came as a shock and I decided that I needed to act and do something about it – and start by creating awareness about its early signs so that it can be controlled at the initial stages itself.

So, that's when you started with the Protect Your Mom (PYM) campaign. Tell us more about it…

I was working as a faculty member teaching marketing at an institute in Dubai when it occurred to me that instead of making students work on a research on some mythical problems, we could actually do a study on why mothers don't do a mammogram? And the results were interesting – we found that this was a result of so many factors such as belief in one's destiny or fate, embarrassment in consulting a male doctor, etc. In fact, the biggest problem is our culture – that is what bogs us down and often stops us from taking timely action. Meanwhile, I was also doing a research on facebook and so thought it would be a good idea to start a campaign on this social networking site, to spread awareness.

PYM works mainly through children -- how did the idea of targeting kids for this cause come about?

Yes, we decided that getting children become aware of such possibilities would work. So PYM campaign was started to make students pester their moms to check for lumps and early signs of breast cancer. The campaign targets students for three reasons: one, they grow up to be more informed adults. Two, mothers are unlikely to screen out kids unlike doctors and official sources and, three, students can be reached through social media at zero cost.
Kids, as I said, thus grow up to be more informed adults and might reach out to their moms in a more persistent way and thus work to save thousands of lives. I borrowed the idea from some of the advertisements that use children to reach out to moms. So, most of our events are organized by kids as young as seven years of age who hold events even in countries like the US, Russia, Kenya and, of course, India.
In fact, all I need is one smart kid and everything gets standardized to help students organize the event while the rest of the support in terms of the rest of the programmes including the planning, chief guest, etc are rendered by me.
With all this, do you think moms have become more aware and responsible about selfexamination, etc?
If you notice, most other campaigns till recently are about walkathons or marathons/runs about creating awareness and the need for mammograms, but very few focus on self-examination. Our programmes make kids actually pester their mom do this every month, so mothers have to necessarily do it.
Here, I must talk about our most outstanding student of this year -- Rishika , who started a signature campaign to get moms to do a self exam and enlisted the support of a number of students who in turn got 10 more moms each to do it. This, I feel, is the best way of killing breast cancer.
All these efforts must be helping in the early detection of breast cancer. What's been the feedback?
The response has undoubtedly been building up. A lady called Elizabeth actually went to the doctor because her kids had pestered her to get a checkup done. Her li'l daughter is now our brand ambassador. Doctors are coming forward to support us as they feel that awareness about self examination is very low and many ladies visit them only at a fairly advanced stage. We need to be aware that early detection can help survival rates by up to 98 per cent.

In 2013, you started with the Hair for Hope campaign in which people donate hair that is made into wigs for those who lose hair because of chemotherapy. In a country like India where hair is associated with women's beauty, was it difficult asking women to part with their long hair?

In 2013, when I started this campaign, it was pretty tough to sell this concept and create awareness especially without funds and sponsors. But slowly, it picked up because many of those whose family members had cancer started coming forth to help.
And now, in Chennai we have over a 1,000 people queuing up to donate hair. So with things fairly sorted on that front, I am now looking for a sponsor to pay the wigmaker or a philanthropist to set up a wig-making unit to give a free wig to every chemo patient in the country.

Have you had any angry parents come to you about their d a u g h t e r s cutting off to donate their long tresses?

Not really, although we see so many young girls taking the courage to donate hair in a country where length of hair is a measure of a woman's beauty. Though some confess to have even risked divorce, social ostracism, and of course, family wrath to do it, but their dedication for the cause was greater.

Another interesting part of your campaign is that boys are growing their hair to donate it. How did this happen?

Let me tell you that the entire campaign was actually inspired by a boy -- six-year-old Dylan -- who grew his hair for four long years to donate it. The list has since been growing -- now we have a man who has donated his hair thrice after growing it each time to the required length of 38 cms. I admire their determination particularly because young men have to face plenty of social ire not just on the familial front but even on the professional front – many even risk their jobs – for their belief in this cause.

Here, I must mention that this year 11 boys from a school in Dubai grew their hair for one whole year to donate it – my appreciation for them as it takes a lot of determination and perseverance to grow hair in the sweltering heat, especially since they need to take part in sports activities too. But at the end of the day, these youngsters felt happy about making a statement – and giving support to cancer patients. Instead of just going pink they were happy to do something really meaningful. A lot of events are being organized in cities, especially in malls and also in colleges. What response is it garnering? The response is amazing. The organizers work to create awareness and at a specially organized event, some donors' hair is cut off in full public view to a lot of encouragement and cheer. This has sometimes inspired others to make an on-the-spur-of-the-moment decision to donate their hair. Even when I may personally not be present at such events, I feel so humbled and it feels so great to work with people i have never met and who are yet helping me out.
Tell us about what happens to the hair that is consequently collected? What's the cost of the wigs for you because it is not an inexpensive process?
Right now, the hair donated in India goes to the Adyar Cancer Centre that has a sponsor to pay for 250 wigs. I do hope they get more sponsors since people are willing to donate hair but the only constraint for us now is funds to pay the wigmaker who charges Rs 4,000 for each wig. As I said, we need a philanthropist to convert it into wigs free of cost.
How do you select patients who eventually get the wigs?

We generally offer them to patients who can't afford to buy from the market – a good quality wig is sold for around Rs 15,000- 20,000. You should see the happiness on the faces of not just the patients but also their families. I remember our first wig was given to this lady who eventually died – she used to feel so happy with her wig that she wanted to be buried wearing it.
A wig is not just a substitute for hair for cancer patients but it is something that gives them the dignity to face society as if nothing is wrong. Society tends to kill cancer patients with their sympathetic looks and comments otherwise… and that unfortunately is worse for patients to handle than the entire trauma of cancer and chemotherapy…