How this woman entrepreneur is saving lives by raising awareness about ovarian cancer

After her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, woman entrepreneur Megha Ahuja launched Sashakt - The Ovarian Cancer Foundation to educate other women about the disease and how they can spot early signs.

According to research conducted by the National Cancer Registry Programme (NCRP) between 2012 and 2014, ovarian cancer is the third most common type of cancer among Indian women. Most cases are diagnosed at Stage III or Stage IV, when the prognosis is very poor, but if diagnosed and treated early, the survival rate is over 90 percent.

In October 2018, Megha Ahuja, 32, decided to launch Sashakt - The Ovarian Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that aims to make every woman in India sashakt (empowered) with knowledge and support to diagnose and fight the battle against ovarian cancer.

Megha Ahuja, Founder, Sashakt - The Ovarian Cancer Foundation

Based in New Delhi, Sashakt conducts unique workshops, events, and social-media campaigns to educate women about the disease.

For her excellent work through Sashakt, Megha was felicitated with the International Women’s Day Award by the Indian Council for United Nation Relations (ICUNR) in March this year.

Megha also runs Udaan, an afternoon school for girls with special needs, which she started in 2017. She is also the Director of Vivekanand School. Megha is a TEDx organiser and an author as well.

Tough road to empowerment

When Megha Ahuja's mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2018, she did her own research and found that while there is awareness about breast and cervical cancer, there is very little information on ovarian cancer.

One of the reasons for this, she says, is that the symptoms are very subtle and most resort to home remedies because the thought that it could be cancer is far from their minds. Although Megha’s mother is recovering well today, she says knowledge of the symptoms would have helped them in early diagnosis and treatment.

“There are five major symptoms - bloating, frequent urination, stomach ache, constipation and always feeling ‘full’. If I had known about the symptoms two years ago, my mom would have been much better today. I can’t change the reality, but if I am able to save some lives through Sashakt, all the efforts will be worthwhile.”

Megha received immense support from her friends and family, and the staff and children at her school to start Sashakt.

Her positivity towards her mission and life helps her stay motivated. She believes in the dictum, “Grow through what you go through.”

Reaching out to women

Sashakt has reached out to lakhs of women through its workshops, campaigns, and collaborations. As part of its awareness campaign, it has also conducted multiple awareness workshops at schools, colleges, and corporate organisations.

Sashakt volunteers raising awareness about ovarian cancer through a performance at 'Raahgiri'

Megha and Sashakt have gone a step further and reached out to people in slums and rural areas near Gurugram. They also sought the help of women drivers at Koala Cabs, who distributed awareness posters in Hindi among their communities.

“The major difference between rural and urban areas is the lack of knowledge of basic hygiene and medical facilities, especially in the rural areas. So while ovarian cancer gets diagnosed at stage III or IV in most cases in urban areas, it doesn’t get diagnosed at all in rural areas, and women end up dying without even knowing what has happened to them,” Megha explains.

Sashakt has collaborated with WorldMark, and the Innov8 coworking spaces, where awareness posters are displayed. Its awareness video is played on screens at food courts and waiting areas. It has also organised events like the Sashakt Hope Meet and the Sashakt Teal Party.

The Sashakt Teal Party conducted to raise awareness about ovarian cancer

The Sashakt Hope Meet conducted to provide support for cancer patients and survivors

The Foundation also has online resources such as ‘Sashakt Teal Party Kit’ - a collection of ideas, printables and information one needs to conduct kitty parties and empower their loved ones with knowledge about ovarian cancer, and ‘Girl on a Mission’ - a micro fiction tale written by Megha to raise awareness and start conversations about the disease from a young age.

Sashakt also reaches out to women through social media, and has collaborated with SHEROES in their health community. It has also run campaigns with Radio Nasha and Ishq FM.

The #AskYourMom campaign

On May 12, Sashakt launched the #AskYourMom campaign across social media, which urged everyone to talk to their mothers and grandmothers about the symptoms of ovarian cancer and visit a doctor in case they find symptoms that are persistent for more than two weeks.

For the campaign, Sashakt reached out to various influential figures like Rajeev Khandelwal, Manoj Muntashir, Gaurav Chopra, the Indian women’s cricket team, renowned authors, entrepreneurs, and social activists.

“The campaign was a great success because of the support extended by all these eminent people who have a huge fan following. It also struck the right chord since May 12 was Mother’s Day,” says Megha.

Doctors and the government

Megha believes hospitals should create awareness among doctors, because general physicians insist on endoscopies and other unrelated tests before arriving at the possibility of ovarian cancer.

“When it comes to cancer, even one month wasted worsens the situation. The approach should be such that any woman, especially above 40, with persistent symptoms of ovarian cancer, should immediately be referred to a gynae-oncologist for ovarian cancer tests.”

Also, women who have a family history of ovarian cancer or breast cancer should be counselled about BRCA gene testing, so that preventive actions can be taken.

According to her, awareness should also come with government intervention.

“We have all listened to ‘cough for more than three weeks can be TB’ advertisements, and even the rural population is aware about it. We need such a revolution for ovarian cancer too,” Megha says.

The path ahead

To anyone who has a loved one fighting cancer, Megha has a message of encouragement.

“Cancer is not a death sentence. The only way to beat cancer is to accept the reality, embrace the pain and find the courage to move forward, one day at a time. It’s a tough road but there’s nothing we can’t go through with love, positivity and patience. Never ever lose hope and keep fighting.”

Megha urges every woman to take her health seriously and see a doctor if she feels like something isn’t quite right.

“We tend to live under the illusion that nothing will ever happen to us, until it actually happens. Most of us ignore the problems we are facing, keep enduring the pain, and keep self-medicating without going for health check-ups. But we have to understand that the consequences can be life threatening. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you live. Any woman can be diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she least expects it. We need to prioritise our health and be Sashakt.”

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)