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Cancer treatment

Rooted to reality

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BACK HOME: Vaid wishes that cancer receives as much public attention as HIV has

He maybe a star oncologist at a big hospital but for Dr Ashok Vaid there is nothing like the satisfaction of treating patients in his small remote village in Jammu.


He could actually be the perfect poster boy for the health ministry, which is trying to get Indian doctors in Western countries to return and practice at home. But this is not the first big journey Dr Ashok Kumar Vaid, the chief of medical oncology and haematology at Medanta Cancer Institute in Gurgaon, made.

He grew up in a village named Kishanpur in J&K which till 1988 didn't have a bus connection to the nearest town. "We had to walk the last 3 km to reach home, " he says. When he completed his medical education - MBBS and MD from the University of Jammu - he chose to spend nearly two years in a back-of-beyond dispensary in J&K.

Word of his talent spread and several international offers from hospitals followed. "But I felt India needed me, " he says. Even when a job offer landed on his table from New York University, following a six-month training programme, he turned it down. "I had gone abroad to improve my skills to serve my people, not to settle there, " says the doctor who is also an avid photographer and a lover of classical music.

Vaid was instrumental in starting the department of medical oncology at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute in Delhi where he spent 10 years. A specialist of bone marrow transplant, Vaid says India at present needs 1, 500 cancer centres as against the current 400, and 10 times the number of oncologists.

"In the US, the number of oncologists of Indian origin is more than the total number of oncologists in India. Indian doctors should return and serve here, " he says.

Vaid, a Padma Shri, gets upset when he sees people who are unable to afford cancer treatment (this is a whopping 30 per cent of the patients). For him, the most challenging cases are of cancer among children and adolescents. "Treating children is emotionally tough. "

Even now, Vaid returns to his village several times a year to treat people under the trust named after his father. "I never forget where I come from. I might be richer now but the satisfaction that comes from treating a patient is unmatched, " he says. He remembers most of his patients - even those he treated a decade ago - by their names.

Cancer, he believes, needs the sort of thrust HIV received. "India saved millions of people from dying of HIV. They made even barbers aware of the disease. The government needs do the same for cancer, " he says.

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