Pediatric cancer survivors reclaim their lives through sport
Tata Memorial Hospital’s association with Moscow’s World’s Children Winners Games is making athletes out of child survivors of cancer. It has sent 65 children to compete in Moscow over the last five years.
Jayden Dmello has a busier lifestyle than most kids in his neighbourhood in Santa Cruz Mumbai. He's up by 6 am to play football and spends the next 12 hours at school and practicing rifle shooting at Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul before returning home for dinner.
This wasn’t the case until a few years ago. His routine was fixed— he spent most of his time in bed, stepping out only for chemotherapy and review sessions. This was around the time he was diagnosed with Wilms Tumour, a kind of kidney cancer that affects children - when he was four years old, which relapsed when he was five.
After years of having just barely enough energy to eat and curl back to sleep, Dmello today, can confidently say he's reclaiming every minute he missed in his childhood due to cancer. He's now gearing up to represent Maharashtra in the upcoming national rifle shooting championship after acing the under-17 ICSC state rifle shooting competition.
For his family, Dmello’s athletic achievements are somewhat a new lease on life as he often travels for tournaments. “We almost lost him, and although no one in the family has any association with sports, we team up to learn and grow with him in the sports he enjoys, because they have given him a love for life after the hell he went through as a child,” says Dmello’s father Sanjay.
Stories of children like Dmello are akin to several pediatric cancer survivors at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) who have found recovery, grit and a zest for life in sports through an initiative of TMH - Improving Paediatric Cancer Care and Treatment (ImPaCCT) Foundation. For the last decade, it has been providing a holistic environment for children with cancer to lead full lives covering everything from treatment-related support like navigation, counselling, nutrition, and blood and platelet support, to access to state and central government schemes and education.
ImPaCCT, which is the pediatric foundation of Tata Memorial Centre, functions in nine TMC centres across six states in India.
In 2014, while working on recovery and rehabilitation, the foundation was contacted by World Children’s Winners Games in Moscow, Russia, a global sports competition for children aged seven to 16 years old, who have completed their treatment for an oncological disease. “We have sent 65 children to Moscow for the competition in the last five years,” says Ameeta Bhatia, volunteer social worker and counsellor at the pediatric department, TMH. In 2018, ten kids from the programme went on to compete in the World children’s Winners Games of which several returned with medals in different categories.
Therapy through sport
As per Dr. Maya Prasad, a consultant pediatric oncologist at TMH, post a grueling fight with cancer, taking up sports can be a big part of immunity building and recovery.
“Childhood cancers are highly curable. Eighty percent of children who are treated with cancer go on to live healthy lives," she says. "Studies show that exercise plays an important role in strengthening mental health as well too. It beats the possibility of obesity that may follow months of bed rest during cancer treatment," adds Dr Prasad.
Zohair Murtuza Dhinojwala, 18, who was diagnosed with a low-fat tumour when he was less than a year old, says he doesn’t remember much of the episode but does recall how sports has been a part of life growing up throughout. He was trained under the programme of ImPaCCT Foundation in four sports—football, chess, athletics, and rifle shooting. He grew up to become a state-level champion in football. “I think I treat my life like an athlete, because of this training,” he says. “When adversity of any kind hits, I look at it as an injury that needs to heal, not a setback."
Training is often given four months in advance of the championship. Kids start with a couple of hours of training and go up to a few hours three times a week as the date nears.
Devanshi Rawat was seven-and-a-half years old when she was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma - a type of cancer affecting muscle tissues - in 2014. “She had started swimming in pre-school and loved playing sports. When the diagnosis came, she had to take a break for a whole year until she underwent treatment,” says her mother Chandra.
Eventually in 2019, after a few months of training, Rawat returned with a gold in chess and swimming. “While the cancer shook us, I’m happy that she took on sports as a means to recovery and strength building at a young age,” says Chandra.
“More than the children, it is parents who are highly enthusiastic to see their children get involved in sports, become physically strong and excel,” says Bhatia. “We tell [the parents] in our counseling sessions that this is an opportunity to treat them like normal, capable children and watch their life bloom.”
Edited by Akanksha Sarma