Making Waves: Penn Nalam Timely Intervention to Save Women from Breast Cancer
Making Waves: Penn Nalam Timely Intervention to Save Women from Breast Cancer

By auther pic. Faiza Ruksar Arif

January 27, 2020

Making Waves: Penn Nalam Timely Intervention to Save Women from Breast Cancer

Building Awareness in the community: Women learning about screening and treatment provisions

Mrs. Sasi is a thirty-nine-year-old working woman from Chennai. She is the sole income earner of her house and is burdened with the responsibility of providing for her family of six, including her child, mother, and sisters. Mrs. Sasi reported being frequently unwell and often used OTC medicines and painkillers to manage her symptoms instead of getting an accurate diagnosis. This low-cost treatment was a common habit amongst the women of as health care was a luxury they could not afford nor access. This social norm proved to be detrimental to Mrs. Sasi as she showed symptoms of breast cancer.


Breast and cervical cancer are the most common cancers reported among women worldwide, with a high incidence in India. Breast cancer accounts for 25-30% of female cancer in India, where a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 4 minutes and a woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes. More than 50% of women who are diagnosed suffer from stage 3 or 4 types of cervical or breast cancer thus significantly reducing their chances of recovery. Furthermore, studies report that only 60% of the women treated for breast cancer survive in India compared to 89% in the United States. Lack of awareness coupled with an absence of organized and timely screening programs in rural India are the major contributors towards a higher mortality rate among women in India. Cancer research in India has found that screening mammography through randomized control trials is the best method to combat breast cancer.


However, Mrs. Sasi was able to receive timely intervention and treatment at the hands of Penn Nalam – an initiative and unit under Sri Dhanvantri Trust that seeks to educate, diagnose, screen, treat and counsel women on positive health and cancer. Sri Dhanvantri Trust is a registered charitable trust, formed in 2009 under the guidance and leadership of Mrs. Radhika Santhakrishnan, a survivor of breast cancer herself. Driven by her own experiences with breast cancer, Mrs. Santhakrishnan set up the trust for generating health awareness and providing treatment to various diseases and ailments for the public at large. She explains "Accessibility to health interventions is futile if it isn't made in a timely fashion. Thus, the core of our initiative is time-sensitive…we identify, encourage and offer care to women as early as possible to give them a real shot at fighting and overcoming cancer." Penn Nalam has established a Cancer Care Centre, located at Ambattur, to deliver low-cost cancer screening modules for the timely detection and diagnosis of cancer. It offers a comprehensive treatment schedule for cancer and other obstetric and gynecological ailments. The Centre also provides excellent post-treatment care and alternative treatments.

Surgery and Chemotherapy sessions at the Penn Nalam Unit

The Penn Nalam unit focuses on conducting awareness programs to educate and mobilize women at risk, encouraging them to undergo cancer screenings. The organization collaborates with educational institutions and a myriad of stakeholders from government and non-governmental organizations to identify and mobilize women. Their approach to awareness building is innovative and informative, where they use puppetry, mimes, dynamic discussions to garner interest and overcome the stigma surrounding testing. During these awareness-building sessions, the women are also shown documentaries and given resources in the form of brochures and self-examination papers to educate them on the importance of getting tested. Penn Nalam ensures that they create a safe environment for the women to ask questions, learn and share their experiences.


After mobilizing women, Penn Nalam sets up screening and treatment provisions for the beneficiaries. A master database is updated with patient data including contact details, reminders for periodical follow-ups in the cases where abnormalities have been detected during screenings. Beneficiaries are encouraged to perform monthly self-examinations coupled with an annual breast exam conducted by a qualified doctor. The organization has a trained team of professional doctors and coordinators in charge of the screening procedures stationed at select medical centers. Women above the age of forty receive more encouragement for screenings as early detection can save lives. Scientific evidence indicates that early detection and regular pap smears can prevent cervical cancer and is low cost during the fetal stage of cancer.

Women arrive and await eagerly to get screened and tested

Thus, Mrs. Sasi is one of a multitude of success stories at Penn Nalam. She was successfully mobilized by Penn Nalam and attended their December screening camps. Her results showed lumps in her breast and she received the timely medical intervention. Based on the initial diagnosis a biopsy was conducted and the doctors were able to confirm that she did have breast cancer. Upon receiving the news Mrs. Sasi and her daughter were heartbroken and unable to foresee a stable future for themselves. However, the counselor and doctors reassured them and conducted multiple counseling sessions and started chemotherapy. After 8 cycles of chemotherapy, a mastectomy was done. Mrs. Sasi has made a full recovery and with the help of regular follow-ups, medication and counseling sessions, she can stay healthy. Mrs. Sasi is grateful to Penn Nalam for their support throughout a daunting phase in her life. She says. "Thanks to Penn Nalam I was able to get timely chemotherapy, surgery, and treatment. This would not have been possible without the support of generous donors and well-wishers. I feel as though I have received a second chance at life. And I will live it to the fullest."


Penn Nalam has successfully screened over 17,940 women and treated more than 400 women. They continue in great fervor to expand both in terms of services provided and beneficiaries reached out to. Their services will now include biopsy, colposcopy, chemotherapy, Lymphedema management, surgery coupled with supportive therapies like yoga and counseling. With a new decade upon us, Penn Nalam is now gearing up to reach 5000-6000 women this year.  Sasi's story of struggle with cancer is one from a plethora of voices at the grassroots. Women's bodies continue to remain a site of struggle – a struggle to acquire rights over their bodies, a struggle to put themselves first, a struggle to overcome social stigma and empower themselves. Initiatives like Penn Nalam give women a platform and safe space to come together and learn through their lived experiences, gain access to information and make informed choices for themselves and their community.


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Faiza Ruksar Arif is a content specialist and researcher based in Bangalore who has worked extensively on curating curriculum and educational programs for adolescents in Telangana. With a Master’s degree in Gender Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Faiza is on a mission to improve social realities by equipping women and other marginalized sections, with improved access to health, education and livelihood opportunities. She also dabbles in artwork and is passionate about issues pertaining to mental health and minority politics.


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