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Can We Stop The Bias And Not Undermine Proficiency Of Cancer Survivors?

The comments directed at me and other Stage 4 cancer patients, questioning the validity of our diagnoses based on appearance, capabilities or lifestyle fit the definition of targeted harassment perfectly. However, I take this bias and hate head-on.

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Urvashi Prasad
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Urvashi Prasad

Urvashi Prasad

"Stage 4 cancer + severe depression + anxiety and director at NITI Aayog. Gali mat dena, but is she fit for her job?" commented a user on X. The user, riding high on ignorance, chose to question my proficiency, as a person occupying a top position as a public health professional. The comment, stemming from insensitivity and misconstrued assumptions, mirrors the viewpoints of many as India grapples with rising cases of both cancer diagnosis and mental health issues. 

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It's Time To Stop The Bias Against Those Fighting Cancer

Despite the overwhelming love and support I have received on social media, there are also hateful messages that appear regularly. If it were just about me, I could have simply blocked these accounts and moved forward. However, it is not just about me, but also about millions of people like me who are facing illnesses such as cancer, depression, and tuberculosis, and are constantly being judged and underestimated. It also concerns the millions of caregivers and families who would be deeply affected by such offensive content. 

Additionally, my gender adds another layer to the issue. It is much easier to attack women and label them as incompetent or indecent while praising men in similar positions and even considering them heroes for continuing to work despite their health conditions. Since my cancer diagnosis, there have been numerous misconceptions on social media and in-person, but as a public health professional, a woman, and a determined individual, I confront these biases directly. If not me, then who will challenge these perceptions?

Cancer patients challenge stereotypes by demonstrating resilience in the face of physical and mental battles, often leading active lives despite the obstacles. Even those with Stage 4 Cancer are experiencing longer lives with appropriate treatment. Cancer is no longer an immediate death sentence; patients can make significant contributions to society over extended periods.

I handle office responsibilities, maintain an active lifestyle, and participate in public speaking, writing, and dancing. The perseverance, courage, and empathy of individuals living with Cancer are invaluable traits, even in a professional context. Interestingly, my boss only recently became aware of my health challenges. Despite a cancer recurrence last year, he rated my performance highly on two occasions. 

When Ayushmann Khurrana took time off work to support his wife, director Tahira Kashyap, during her battle with breast cancer, he was praised for being a supportive husband without any questioning of his acting abilities. However, if I request some flexibility in my work hours, doubts about my competence arise. Why aren't the competence and performance of ‘able-bodied’ individuals questioned? Why must those with health conditions feel the need to prove themselves as superhuman to be considered valuable?

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When Anurag Basu shared his experience of working on films while battling acute promyelocytic leukaemia in 2004, he was applauded for his courage. His ability to work on those films was never doubted despite his health condition, indicating a clear gender bias in the scrutiny and criticism faced by individuals with health challenges.

The study conducted by Nabamallika Dehingia et al and published in PLOS ONE under the title ‘Violence against women on Twitter in India: Testing a taxonomy for online misogyny and measuring its prevalence during COVID-19’ has highlighted the pressing need to create gender equitable and inclusive digital spaces for women. 

Despite my repeated reports regarding hateful and judgmental tweets, I continue to receive the same automated responses from X, stating that ‘After reviewing the available information, we determined that there were no violations of the X rules in the content you reported.’ X’s guidelines on ‘abuse and harassment’ include a category known as ‘targeted harassment’, which is described as ‘malicious, unreciprocated, and intended to humiliate or degrade an individual(s)’.

Urvashi Prasad

The tweets directed at me and other Stage 4 cancer patients, questioning the validity of our diagnoses based on appearance, capabilities or lifestyle fit this definition of targeted harassment perfectly. These tweets also frequently tag my employer and challenge my ability to hold a senior-level policy position while dealing with health issues. I have even shared my performance reviews in response to one particularly malicious tweet.

However, the real question is: who are these individuals to pass such judgment? While I am accountable to my employer, I am not obligated to justify myself to anonymous online trolls. It is important to remember that perceptions can be misleading, and every individual deserves to be recognized as a complete human being, irrespective of their health status.

I am actively working towards combating stigma, discrimination, judgment, and hate, as every voice and every small effort contributes to this cause. I trust that platforms such as X will contribute towards stopping this harmful trolling by taking action instead of relying on automated responses to address genuine complaints.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.

cancer survivors Urvashi Prasad gender bias
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