Cancer is a pause, not the end of the road: Samara Mahindra lights the path
There is this girl whom I met recently and now absolutely love! And once you read her story, I'm sure you will feel the same way, respect her, and wish her success.
In our country, we don't talk about grief, we don't talk about pain, and we don't talk about losses. Somehow, it's considered a taboo, especially when it comes to diseases and specifically when it comes to cancer. Many consider cancer the end of the world.
I have been trying to find someone who is doing something different for cancer patients and their families to make a genuine difference to their treatment process. My hunt ended when I spoke to Samara Mahindra, who is going all out with her venture, CARER, to make sure that cancer patients receive more than just medical treatment at an affordable cost.
For me, just listening to why and what she does and how she's going about it was very healing. She is someone who has transformed her pain to make a difference in the lives of others.
Here are excerpts from my conversation with her. This is Samara's story.
Shradha Sharma: I am very excited and privileged to talk to you because what you are doing is much needed for India and for the world. Tell us your story.
Samara Mahindra: It just surprises me that no one has even engaged in this kind of therapist approach to cancer before. We provide a holistic approach to cancer patients at home — we work alongside treatment as well as post treatment. There is so much emphasis on conventional treatment that no one looks into what happens to the patient, their lifestyle, their food habits, their movement, and the emotional baggage that is being carried.
I got into this space because I was touched. I lost my mother to cancer about seven years ago. I was always interested in health awareness but I didn't know it would be in the field of oncology. I saw what she went through and I realised how important it is to treat a person as a whole and not just focus on the physical symptoms of cancer. This is where we decided to bring something to the store.
SS: Everything begins in the mind and what I have experienced is that when people have cancer or are diagnosed with cancer, the world around them starts thinking that they are just counting their days. There are few people who feel that this is normal and will get over it. Do you see that in your work? How do you deal with the mental pressure that comes from the world to calm a patient saying that their days are numbered?
SM: I see it all the time. I think cancer is probably one of those illnesses that is stigmatised in the country. When one is diagnosed with cancer, people think it's the end of the road. This is far from the truth. Cancer can be managed if you have the right tools and therapies to take you forward. It is really the lack of knowledge that leads to something like this. People don't know what it is all about. When you decode cancer and understand why it's even come up in the system, (that's) when you know that it's in your control.
People think that they are not coming out of this alive but it's not true. When we work with patients, we make them realise that it's in their hands, they are very much in control of what's going on and (we tell them to) get off Google because it can scare anyone. All that information can be intimidating.
The other thing I have found is talking about it is very important. But at the same time, I have noticed patients do not want to talk about it to their friends or neighbours because of the reaction that they get. The reaction that people have towards cancer is because of a lack of knowledge that initiates a response of ‘Oh my God! this person is in a really bad situation' and that makes it worse for the patient going through cancer. The word itself has been given a very scary meaning and it's really not that.
SS: Samara, tell me how does one approach your venture, CARER? Have you partnered with hospitals? Tell me the process. If I am a patient or a family member of a patient, how do I approach you?
SM: We have three ways that people can approach us. We are tied up with hospitals, (and) we are going be in many other major hospitals in the country. Secondly, many of the top oncologists in the country know about us, (and) they communicate this to their patients. Thirdly, we go directly to patients. They find us on social media and (through) whatever information is out there. We are a growing platform, we are a growing business, and we find a lot of people coming to us, which is great.
We are not post-treatment only — we work as soon as the patient is diagnosed. When we speak to oncologists, we ask them to let us come on board as soon as a patient is diagnosed because we can manage the side effects of the treatment better, we can increase the effectiveness of the treatment.
SS: What all do you do?
SM: We focus on dietary nutrition intervention, which is key. People think they know what to eat but they don't and it has to be very specific to the type of cancer they are going through. We have a personalised dietary nutrition protocol, we provide yoga therapy specifically for cancer. I say that because it has taken me ages to procure the right specialists. Even sitting in the land of yoga, finding yoga therapists that work with cancer has been a challenge, but we have a great team on board. We provide meditation to deal with emotional and mental disturbances and a lot of coaching that I do personally as well. We look at a holistic approach, which goes alongside the treatment.
SS: The more I hear, the more I am impressed. Tell me about your journey. To me, you're a girl, a daughter who has used her own being to create magic in the lives of so many people. I am sure it's not been easy. How have you done this?
SM: It's not easy at all. I lost my father when I was three years old. I was born into a family where there was this one woman whom I idolised. She was a father figure and a mother figure too—I didn't know anything else but her. She was building a very successful business and I grew up seeing this one woman go up against all the norms and stand her ground and be very independent. It was that person that I was nurtured around, and then suddenly something like cancer hit her.
It was that person that I was nurtured around, and then suddenly something like cancer hit her. It was a lot for her and the family. She got cleared but unfortunately, she relapsed. She went through many years of treatment and that's when I started noticing so many things were lacking in cancer care. Unfortunately, we lost her. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking I can either be a victim to something like this and sleep in my sorrow or I can do something about it.
SS: I want to just say, amazing!
SM: A lot of people turn around and say it's so noble what you are doing. I am very grateful for that but I will be very honest, Shradha, it's a very selfish endeavour as well. When I see people getting better, when I see patients recovering, it gives me hope, it definitely heals a part of me. I do it for my selfish reasons. When I lost my mother to cancer, unfortunately, I knew quite a few people who were diagnosed with it or were losing their lives to it. I said, ‘Oh my God, is this really what the end result is?' and I wanted to defy that. I said ‘No, this can't be the end result.' When we created this programme, we realised that there are options and the biggest feat is the fact that I am sure our programme would have definitely saved my mother's life.
SS: Now that you are saving so many lives, coming to what you said and doing it and its healing, you have to take this win, because I have lost my mother and I have not come to terms with it still but it heals me the more I am here to spread happiness. Coming to that conversation that we had earlier, I feel, in India specifically and maybe the world over, we put it in the closet, this conversation of pain, this discussion about grief, this discussion about being vulnerable and being open. Somewhere it's just not a coffee table or alcohol conversation, it's not even a conversation. Carpet ke neeche daba du, tab bhi aap karle to yaani ke aap sympathy chahte hain—you want sympathy or you are still not strong enough or there is no need for it. What do you think—the whole family, the pain they go through, why has it not become a mainstream conversation? That's what I liked, what you were saying—that you worked with the families.
SM: When we coach and counsel, we counsel the family as well — they are very much a part of this. Often, we ignore them but they are an integral part of the patient's healing as a medical team is. It's also the kind of implication it has on your image. Unfortunately, the kind of treatment they go through, especially when it's women, mastectomies, double mastectomies, losing your hair, a lot of physically dysfunctionalities that happen, people are very ashamed at that.
SS: We don't want to face our own mortality. When someone is dying it reminds us of our own mortality and we want to avoid it. Do you feel that?
SM: Hundred percent. Also, what I realise now is, when I worked with so many patients, that it's all stemming from some emotional baggage. It is amazing and I was saying this earlier, that I go and sit in a coaching session and we speak for three hours and I say two sentences and walk out and they say, ‘Thank you so much, you have healed me'. They just want to talk.
SS: How are you seeing your venture scale? Is it going to be an India-based venture, or are you going to expand globally? I want to know because I feel this stems from your heart and it's a venture driven by such passion and so much heart. Commercially, how do you think of scaling this?
SM: Right now, we are looking at quality control and that's something we are always looking at. We look at the number of clients that we take on board every month. The idea is to go slow and steady but to provide the best quality healthcare to everyone's homes. I am looking at personalising the programs. We are looking at CARER program for breast cancer, for childhood cancer, blood cancer, (and) so on. There is no one who is doing this, no one is providing home care of holistic therapies for cancer. We want to cover that area. There is no limit for something like this. We have a lot of doctors who come to us and ask us to create programs for cardiac or for diabetes and chronic diseases, but I think cancer is our space where we really want to excel.
SS: One thing that you mentioned was that it is affordable. That this is not expensive because cancer in itself is so expensive. But what have you been able to do is make it affordable.
SM: My finance team is not very happy with that at all. It's such a personal thing that I know the kind of investment that goes into (cancer) treatment that to get people to come on board for something like this, it has to be a viable option for them. And money is very much part of that. We have tried to make it as affordable as possible. It could be as low as Rs 15,000 per month, which is two consults with a very big doctor. But as we go along, let's see how it goes. I want to keep the cost low. I want everyone to have access to this, I don't want people to turn around and say, at least the majority of people, to turn around and say, ‘No, I don't want it because I can't afford it'.
SS: We need it so much, we need to succeed so badly for so many people. Are you going to be raising venture capital money for this or are you going to go your own way?
SM: Right now, we are keeping it very sustainable. Let's see what the future holds and it's something that I would look (at) if it's needed. We are growing very rapidly and we want to keep up with what is happening. I would never say no to it. But at present, it's very much in control and it's doing good and I am happy about that.
SS: Tell me about Samara, the girl.
SM: I have so many different personalities. I think I am learning so much about myself. Starting a company teaches you so much about yourself, it is unbelievable. Working with patients and cancer, because it gives hope. I learned so much through my own coaching and counseling, it's amazing. I have been giving scenarios and families and patients that almost emulate what I went through so many years ago. I learned from that. I learned where I went wrong, what mistakes I made, and where I am growing and what I am becoming. I am evolving—let's just say I am evolving.
I think in terms of who I am as a person, there are very big dreams. People think I am in this illusion, they think she is up in the clouds. But for me, it's just that everything is in your hands. One thing that my mother taught me is that there is nothing out of your control, nothing, just go out there, show up, and keep moving forward, so I push myself and I try to do that and figure (it out).
SS: All of us wish you great success. May all the energies which you transmit come back to you in double measure and make you successful.