Ashic Foundation is providing children with facilities to fight the disease
The small balcony on the seventh floor has a tinny cradle. Tazi usually sits on the cot most of the time and stares outside. The world of the seven-year-old kid has shrunk, and appeared to be as tiny as the veranda is after his being diagnosed with cancer.
He left school in the first grade and his life has gradually become confined to stays either at his Noakhali home or Zahura Ashic Shelter in Dhaka. His colourful childhood faded away due to his agonising battle with cancer. Nowadays Tazi prefers to stay alone when other kids of his age remain playful and have fun.
He could not even walk six months ago. However, treatment at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) cancer unit helped improve his situation. The kid came to the capital on February 11 for chemotherapy.
Like Tazi, 10-year-old Meer Nafisa Ibnat Neha has been at the Ashic Shelter with her mother for the last 15 days. Neha was diagnosed with the disease when she was a second grader in 2017.
Cancer also changed Neha as scars developed on her skin, turning her playfulness into a deep uncertainty.
Bloodstream infection has forced Neha's treatment to linger, and platelets of her blood remain low. Her mother Salma Begum said she does not know when they would be able to return home.
Referring to doctors, the mother said Neha was supposed to be cured after a three-year-treatment. However, blood infection has been stretching the duration while platelet count is still too low.
Like Tazi or Neha, the number of child patients afflicted by cancer is on the rise. As many as 14,000 to 15,000 kids get infected with the disease every year. Most of the children die owing to poor access to cancer treatment. Many cannot afford the long and expensive battle against cancer.
Ashic Foundation appears to be a ray of light for less fortunate children and their families engaged in fighting the battle.
Established in 1994, the foundation has been providing patients with shelter, funds, palliative care and play centres at hospitals. The foundation has stood by nearly 10,000 kids and their families in the last 26 years.
"I established the facility in the name of my boy who lost the battle against the disease at four," the founder of Ashic Foundation, Salma Choudhury, told The Business Standard.
She said guardians bring their children to Dhaka with carers from remote areas of the country. The treatment takes three to three and a half years. Many of them stop seeing doctors as they cannot afford the medical expenses and long stay in the capital.
"This shelter helps the kids and guardians stay and continue the fight," she added.
The shelter at Banglamotor in the city has accommodated nearly 1,000 children since 2000. The 20-bed facility has an isolation unit for critical patients.
The children play at the facility after seeing the doctors, or receiving therapy. Two caretakers, one of them a cancer survivor, look after the children.
"I would not be able to continue the treatment of my five-year-old boy if this shelter had not been here," said Rehana Begum, who hails from Feni. The mother said it takes Tk5,000 to Tk6,000 per month for the treatment.
Rehana and her day-wager husband have been continuing their boy's treatment for two years.
"I do not know whether we will make it to the end as our relatives are currently bearing the costs," said Rehana.
Ashic Foundation also provides marginalised guardians with financial support. In the meantime, the palliative care unit has become the home for kids who almost lost the battle against cancer.
Doctors and nurses are on the rounds 24 hours a day.
"We were fortunate as our boy had his treatment in London. I saw there play centers for such patients. My son also loved to play there," said founder Salma Choudhury.
She adapted the idea in Bangladesh and introduced ASHIC Play Corner at Dhaka, Sylhet, Chattogram Medical College Hospitals and Bangabandhu Medical University.
As many as 200 children have won the battle against cancer so far with the help of the foundation. The foundation terms a patient a survivor if he or she shows no sign of ailment for five years after stopping medication.
The government should step in for the kids with cancer, Salma Choudhury's husband Afzal Choudhury said.
"There should be initiatives so that a survivor does not lose hope and can resume normal life. This is because treatment eats up three to five years and the child lags behind in academic career," said Afzal Choudhury.
He said, "My wife almost lost the meaning of her life as our son died. This foundation also provides her with a meaning of life. Meanwhile, objectives of aiding the battle against cancer have been fulfilled."
Afzal also pointed to the poor cancer treatment facilities in Bangladesh. He said there are only 22 cancer specialists in the country while many hospitals do not have arrangements for cancer treatment.
Afzal and Salma said the foundation will continue to improve the life of children suffering from the disease. They said it will work to ensure equal treatment facilities, introducing palliative care units across the country and specialised training for physicians.