At the tender age of 17, Roshan Wankhede has had a facial reconstruction surgery after he lost half his upper jaw to advanced oral cancer. This was followed by excruciatingly painful sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Now, while on the road to recovery, he can take in only liquid food and experiences difficulties with speech. Since there is a 50% chance of a relapse, he has to go for a check-up every three months.
Four years ago, Wankhede was like any other adolescent coming to terms with the changes — in his body and those around him. That’s when he picked up his first sachet of gutka. But the gesture that started out as an attempt to impress his peers took hold of his life. Within years, he found himself in cancer’s deadliest grip.
Gone are the days when tobacco-related diseases were only associated with people in the age group of 60-70. Now, many teenagers are coming forward with oral sub-mucous fibrosis — a condition that leads to cancer.
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, associate professor, surgical oncology, Tata Memorial Hospital at Parel, who has been at the forefront of the battle against the sale and use of gutka in the state, says, “Earlier, it was unthinkable that anyone below the age of 35 could contract head and neck cancers due to tobacco/gutka use. But now, we get patients as young as 14-24 years old who have such cancers.”
The hospital’s head and neck cancer department sees an average of 40 new oral cancer cases every day. But what has set the alarm bells ringing, adds Dr Chaturvedi, is that out of every 100 oral cancer patients there, 15% are in the age group of 10-20. Forty per cent of such patients are in their early 30s.
Devika Chadha, programme director of NGO Salaam Bombay, blames the trend on the ease of access to gutka sachets. “When a pack of gutka is kept just beside chocolates, how can it not tempt children?” Salaam Bombay, which has been working closely with the law ministry and the food minister’s office, was instrumental in bringing about a ban on gutka and paan masala in the state.
A recent survey conducted by it had showed 61% schools in the city had shops selling tobacco products within 100 yards of their premises. Thirty per cent of these shops were running without a licence and 87% didn’t have any pictorial and textual warnings against contracting cancer with regular consumption of tobacco.
Experts say a number of factors influence children and teenagers to consume tobacco. Prevention, therefore, is better than cure. “Children get influenced if they have a family history of tobacco users and by peer pressure, experimentation, personality factors as well as underlying emotional and psychological factors. They also get influenced by aggressive marketing strategies,” Dr Seema Hingorany, child psychologist.
Wankhede, who heaved a sigh of relief when the government banned the manufacture and sale of gutka and paan masala in the state, agrees. “Both manufacturers and sellers should be jailed. Even those chewing gutka should be severely punished.”
Time may heal his wounds, both physical and psychological. But if the authorities budge from their stand, many other Wankhedes may never get that shot.