Swagatika Acharya and Dr Kunal Kumar Das may be poles apart when it comes to age, but not in spirit. The two recently climbed more than 11,800 feet to Dayara Bugyal in Uttarakhand. But that’s not their only achievement. 24-year-old Acharya and 71-year-old Das are both cancer survivors. The duo, along with six other survivors, embarked on this four-day trek organised by Apollo Cancer Centres and IndiaHikes, to prove to themselves and to others that there is life after cancer. The survivors, aged between 24 and 71, were accompanied by two oncologists, nurses, a team of videographers and four trek leaders, besides caregivers and spouses of some of the participants.
The trek organisers chose Dayara Bugyal trek as it meant beginners and is categorised as easy. They also had an ambulance stationed at the base camp as a precautionary measure. The participants were chosen from across the country based on their fitness level and only after their doctors’ approval. Some of these survivors were declared cancer free only six months ago, while some a year ago.
Acharya, accompanied by her father, was the youngest of the survivors. At first glance, she appears frail and delicate. That image quickly wears off as you hear her speak. Acharya was diagnosed with Nasopharynx Carcinoma when she was 19 and in college, studying law in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar city.
“(During the process of treatment) I realised that cancer was perceived as a taboo in Odisha. The patients in the hospital were sad and depressed. When I started sharing photos of myself on social media after losing all my hair, I would receive a lot of negative comments. But it also inspired other cancer sufferers, who reached out to me. That’s when I decided to do something for my people,” says Acharya. After her recovery, motivating other cancer patients and survivors has become her lifelong mission.
She has now formed the Awaaken Cancer Care Trust, a non-profit organisation with 15 core members and a number of volunteers working across Odisha to spread awareness about cancer. The disease is treatable if detected early, and with that aim, the organisation has conducted over 1500 free breast cancer screenings and nearly 5000 sessions on cancer awareness, apart from providing palliative, hospice, and financial aid to cancer fighters. The organisation also arranges for employment of those patients, who are the sole breadwinners of their families.
On the trek, while Acharya’s cheerful disposition kept everyone’s spirits high, it was Das’s youthful energy that inspired all. A former scientist with the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun, he was diagnosed with renal cancer in 1996 while he was working as a senior scientist. “The then-director of Isro, and other officers, suggested I go to Delhi immediately for treatment. My wife, two scientists and an administrative officer accompanied me to Indraprastha Apollo in Delhi. There my left kidney was removed,” he says.
But Das never panicked. For him, it was important that life went on. It has been 26 years since then. “Life should be carefree. That is what I have always lived by. And I’ll keep travelling and exploring till I can,” he adds. A football player in his early days, being physically active throughout his life helped Das stay fit. His work, which took him to many countries, required him to walk extensively. “Even after I was left with only one kidney, I visited many places, climbed high altitudes, and went on to do some amazing projects,” he says. Today, he walks ten kilometres every evening, goes on hikes and heritage walks with a local group in Dehradun called Been There Doon That, and more.
On the first day of the trek, Das was the first to reach the campsite, putting many millennial trekkers to shame. Apart from being fit and strong, he was also a treasure trove of stories on topics ranging from wildlife to geography. As the trekkers passed through a forest, lined with majestic golden oaks, with the call of the monal echoing in the background, Kunal imparted short lessons on botany, helping the group identify the different kinds of plants and trees along the way.
What brought him joy was the happiness on the faces around him, once the group scaled the summit. Acharya too was ecstatic. Standing at 11,800 feet, she had proved everyone wrong—those who had called her ‘too thin’, ‘too weak’ and ‘too fragile’ to trek. “I have always been extremely excited about adventures, and after trekking to Dayara Bugyal, I feel that cancer is only one part of our life. There is lots to explore after that,” she adds.
Sitting in a circle at the campsite before descending to the base camp, Manoranjan Acharya, her father, said, beaming with pride, “I came along with Swagatika thinking she would need assistance, but it was the other way round. I had underestimated her strength. She is stronger than I had imagined.”
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