Arafat Hossain, the youngest son of Mizanur Rahman and Rahima Akter, turned five just a few days ago. Residing in a remote village named Auliapur in Patuakhali, his parents planned to start his schooling from this year.
But fate had something different planned.
"It all started with a breathing problem and fever in mid-2020. We were clueless and the medical facility was limited. From the local hospital of Auliapur to Barisal District Hospital, no doctor could diagnose anything until we came to Dhaka Shishu Hospital," said Rahima.
In July 2021, Arafat was diagnosed with blood cancer. Since then, he and his family have been travelling back and forth to Dhaka for treatment.
"We are poor people. We struggle to ensure three meals a day. My husband works at an ice cream factory as a day labourer and is the only breadwinner for five. In a family like ours, an expensive disease like cancer is nothing but a nightmare," she added.
Presently, along with his mother, Arafat is living in Alok Nibash and is receiving treatment in a Dhaka-based cancer hospital.
Having no relatives present in Dhaka, it was a nightmare for them to manage a place to stay and continue the treatment simultaneously. On the verge of almost giving in to cancer, Arafat's doctor suggested that they inquire about Alok Nibash. Without his suggestion, they probably would not have even known that a place like that exists.
Even though we all are familiar with cancer and perceive it as a fatal disease, the real extent of it is only understood by those who have either suffered from it, or have witnessed someone with cancer very closely.
Najmus Ahmed Albab, a Dhaka based businessman's picture-perfect life turned ravaged with uncertainties the moment he was diagnosed with leukaemia back in 2011.
Fortunately for Albab, he was privileged enough to get his treatments abroad and fought cancer with all his might. Yet, not everyone is as lucky as he to possess adequate financial stability to afford such medical support.
A report by Researchgate reveals that each year, around 2,00,000 people in Bangladesh are diagnosed with cancer and around 1,50,000 of them eventually die from it.
Due to insufficient diagnosis facilities, ignorance and the unrealistic cost of treatment, only a third of cancer patients are able to avail of primary care and treatment and maintain visits to regular follow-up facilities.
Albab spent countless sleepless nights thinking about these setbacks. But when he wholeheartedly believed that his cancer was cured, he was given this second chance at life to serve a greater purpose. Albab quit his RMG business and started working towards creating something unique for cancer patients. It became his top priority.
He founded the Bangladesh Cancer Aid Trust (BANCAT) in 2011. This Trust helps the underprivileged cancer patients of Bangladesh avail aid by bridging them with donors.
But, as some time passed, Albab realised that donation alone is not going to be enough to support the cancer patients as they also need special care and supervision. Our country is undoubtedly advancing in establishing cancer hospitals and research institutes, but what we lack is ensuring integrated care homes for the patients.
The aftermath of cancer treatments is much more sensitive than the treatment process itself. After chemotherapy, every patient needs to be taken intensive care of for a while, as they lose their immunity, among other things.
Majority of the cancer hospitals and care centres are located in Dhaka. As a result, rural cancer patients have no other option but to set bound for Dhaka for treatments. For those who have no place in Dhaka to stay, no known contacts for the treatment or are simply lost in the maze of cancer hospitals and diagnostic centres, Albab founded the country's first-ever cancer care home at Bashundhara R/a named 'Alok Nibash'.
Inaugurated on 15 January, Alok Nibash is the signature project of BANCAT. As the name suggests, Alok Nibash is a place that parallelly provides courage, shelter and care for the cancer warriors.
"In our country, cancer is less of a disease and more of a nightmare. The limited awareness of cancer makes people fear it. Many people are even reluctant about their symptoms as they believe cancer is not for them," said Albab.
As of now, Alok Nibash has eight rooms for patients and attendants. Each room can accommodate up to three patients. Alok Nibash currently has a team of 12, including a General Manager, a Patient Coordinator, three nurses, two ward boys, two helping hands and an in-house chef. The care home also has a big dining space, which is simultaneously used as a living area where the patients can sit and chat and bond.
With an accommodation capacity of up to 24 patients and their attendants, Alok Nibash started as an integrated wellness centre, providing mental health support, physical wellness training, proper nutrition, and transportation to medical facilities for the cancer patients coming to Dhaka for treatment.
The authority plans to appoint an in-house counsellor and form a community named 'Survivors Club' where cancer survivors will inspire new patients and give hopes to each other to live for.
The aim is to ensure that every patient gets the complete care they deserve throughout the treatment period, as care is most vital to increase the probability of a cancer patient's recovery.