Hope, One Meal At A Time
Cuddles Foundation is providing holistic nutrition to underprivileged children across India struggling with cancer, developing their physical strength to face the disease head-onBy Aatika H Jain
A bright-eyed little boy sneaked into the tiny room and peeked into one of the cartons expectantly. When gently chided, he responded with a dimpled grin. The oncologist quipped, “Santosh* was a police inspector last time. Has he come as a dacoit this time?” The little boy chuckled and ran back to his father, who was waiting outside in the queue. His facemask couldn’t hide the toothless giggle. They had come to receive the free supplements that were being distributed by the Cuddles Foundation nutritionists to all the kids visiting the makeshift paediatric cancer OPD at AIIMS, Delhi.
Santosh had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia when he visited AIIMS late last year. Adjudged severely malnourished, he was immediately enrolled in the NGO’s nutrition programme. Initially fed through a nasogastric tube, he gradually regained his appetite and his weight has improved with consistent dietary monitoring. He is an active child now, on maintenance therapy. The Cuddles nutrition programme is an initiative of the Mumbai-based Cuddles Foundation, established in 2012. It is the only NGO in India that provides holistic nutritional support to children from poor families who are battling cancer.
The seeds of the foundation’s vision were sown when Founder and CEO Purnota Dutta Bahl visited Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH), Mumbai, and witnessed rural families coming for their kids’ cancer treatment. “I happened to see a little girl who reminded me so much of my daughter who was exactly the same age. That was the turning point in my life,” says Bahl. An Indian School of Business alumna, she left her well-paid job to set up the Cuddles Foundation. The organisation initially focused on bringing the issue to light. Says Bahl: “It has taken us several years to aggressively create the awareness about the fact that 40 per cent of all children under cancer treatment do not survive because of malnourishment. Food is as important as treatment, if not more. With the right nutrition and care, cancer is highly curable.”
Fighting cancer with nutrition
Six-year-old Anand* was admitted to Bharati Hospital, Pune, when he was diagnosed with Burkitt ’s lymphoma. The malnourished boy weighed only 15.8kg, of which his tumour came up to 1.5kg. Chemotherapy acted like poison on his malnourished, slight form. The side effects were severe, in the form of vomiting, fever, dehydration and grade 1 mucositis. After enrolment in the Cuddles nutrition programme, he was put on enteral feed. In two weeks, he gained 900g. He is on his way to gaining the optimum weight and strength to withstand the cancer treatment.
Says Dr Girish Chinnaswamy, Senior Paediatric Oncologist, TMH: “Most of the children afflicted with childhood cancer in India develop malnutrition either due to the cancer or they already have pre-existing malnutrition. What is well known is that if we do treat malnutrition right at the beginning of the treatment, these children have a much better outcome than the children whose malnutrition is not addressed.”
Bridging the nutritional gap
The organisation collaborates with government and charitable hospitals where underprivileged children are treated. Eighty per cent of these children are usually malnourished when they visit the hospitals for the first time. The Cuddles Foundation works with these hospitals towards capacity building by placing their nutritionists in the hospitals. They provide hot midday meals to kids at OPDs, nutritional supplements and monthly ration baskets for a three-member family in need of support.
“It Has Taken Us Several Years To Aggressively Create The Awareness About The Fact That 40 Per Cent Of All Children Under Cancer Treatment Do Not Survive Because Of Malnourishment.”Purnota Dutta Bahl, Founder and CEO, Cuddles
The supplements range from fruit, biscuits, lassi, ghee and Bournvita to Threptin, Pentamin, Peptamin, Pediasure, and the like. The nutrition programmes ensure that families have one thing less to worry about. For instance, the ration programme ensures that not only the child but the parents too get the adequate amount of nutrition in order to continue the treatment. These programmes have been successful in reducing the treatment dropout by 86 per cent, according to an impact study conducted at TMH. “I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude to the entire Cuddles team for the great work done by drawing our attention to nutrition and helping families cope with the distress during the entire treatment,” says Prof. Prantar Chakrabarti, HOD, Haematology, NRS Medical College, Kolkata.
Their nutritionists are trained in paediatric cancer nutrition by some of the best oncologists at TMH and they create personalised diet plans and nutritional charts for the kids, closely monitor and record their progress, and encourage the parents to incorporate a nutritional diet within their limited means. The foundation has developed an app called Cuddles FoodHeals, which helps nutritionists in monitoring the kids’ nutritional requirements. Currently, the Cuddles Foundation has 27 expert nutritionists placed in 22 partner hospitals in 13 cities across the country. On an average, each nutritionist advises 95 patients every day. “We are also conducting research here at AIIMS, on paediatric nutrition and kids with cancer,” says Mitika, Cuddles nutritionist at AIIMS.
An Upward Trajectory
Cuddles plans to cater for more than 80 per cent of children under cancer treatment. “We want to be able to take our model to reach out to malnourished children in other developing countries too,” says Bahl. “In the long term, we would also like to cover nutrition for children suffering from other critical and life threatening illnesses like HIV and TB too. Ultimately, we would like to make ourselves redundant by making nutrition accessible to all kids undergoing any treatment for critical illness in India through hospital or government ownership of this model.” The Cuddles Foundation has won the prestigious National Award for Child Welfare from the President of India for 2015-2016. The generosity of the partners and donors, and the aspiration to achieve excellence in the work they do keep Bahl motivated. Nisha Vats, Chapter Lead, Delhi affirms, “There’s an inexplicable satisfaction when we see that the children are following our diet plans and it’s benefiting them.” Mitika nods in agreement as she distributes the day’s supplements to the outstretched little hands.