But there was hope, considering that Harmala at that point of time was living in Canada. Says she: "In that part of the world, there's widespread awareness about cancer and it's usually detected early." But more than her ability to sustain intensive chemotherapy, the professional counselling that she received contributed more to her recovery. "I was put in touch with other people who had survived cancer - that really gave me courage," she says.
After all this, it was a shock to be back in India. Harmala, by now acutely conscious of the trauma cancer patients undergo, was stunned by the abysmal facilities available here. Half the battle against cancer is fought in the patients' mind. Avers Harmala: "One has to believe in the possibility of recovery." And much to her dismay, she found patients were totally unaware of basic facts about the disease - many thought it was totally incurable and contagious. "I realised that a patient, more than anything else, needs support," she says. Thus, with a support system for cancer patients in view, she set up Cancer Sahyog, in 1991. The aim was to rope in survivors and their relatives to try and provide some hope to suffering patients. But soon she realised that more was needed.
Thus was born CanSupport in 1996. The idea, according to Harmala, was to not just provide hope, but support as well. She wanted to replicate the assistance that she received in the West in the form of palliative medicine in India. CanSupport decided to set up home-care units to help patients avoid the frantic search for a miracle that inevitably led to expensive, ineffectual treatment. Most of their patients - who belong to the economically disadvantaged classes - are beyond any hope for a cure and hence are usually discharged from hospitals. CanSupport keeps visiting these patients to offer advice, counselling and medicines.
Initially, the group was a coming together of concerned acquaintances from different fields and a team of three - a doctor, nurse and counsellor - was constituted to visit the patients. But the problem lay in a lack of genuine expertise in palliative care. But serendipitous help was at hand. bbc correspondent Mike Wooldridge came to Delhi, accompanied by his wife Ruth - a nurse in palliative care. More help came from Dr Abha Saxena, an aiims doctor who, after a course in palliative care in Oxford, had started a 'pain clinic' for cancer patients in aiims. The group, in addition to providing free service, also sometimes gives these people rations. While the main idea is to provide direly-needed counselling, CanSupport also distributes bedpans, wheelchairs and backrests. Resources, obviously, were a problem. The group needed more nurses and money for daily functioning. Slowly, some contributions from organisations and individuals started trickling in and work began in a 25-km radius around aiims. Another facet of the group's work is the helpline that functions from 11 am to 1 pm from Monday to Friday. Manned by trained volunteers, it aims at extending immediate counselling and also access to CanSupport. In collaboration with the Institute Rotary Cancer Hospital at aiims, the team of five - comprising Dr J.P. Jain, counsellors Sister Agnes and Harmala, nurses Sister Leonarda and Ruth Wooldridge and driver Bahadur Singh - is always on the move between 9 am and 5 pm five days a week. In case of an emergency, they are also available on weekends. Recently, CanSupport has put another team on the road, enhancing their activity and aim of reaching every area of Delhi and its outskirts. Now, at any point the group has about 50 patients on hand. It's a modest but dedicated beginning and so far about 400 patients have come under CanSupport's protective umbrella. They can be contacted at 38, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Tel: 6497154, 6497415, Helpline no: 6497153.