Crowdfunding cancer treatment for Kashmir's poor, 30 cents at a time

Srinagar, India (CNN)When 24-year-old Sana Bhat was diagnosed with leukemia, her family was devastated.

"Sana was beautiful, as if God had made her with his own hands," says her sister Sadiya. "Being the youngest of the three siblings, we loved her most. We tried everything to save Sana till her last breath. But we could not save her."

Though the disease claimed Sana's life in February, her story inspired a Kashmiri crowd-sourced charity to help patients suffering from cancer and other diseases requiring expensive treatment. 

    Sana, a Kashmiri studying hotel management in the north Indian state of Haryana, had been diagnosed with leukemia in April 2015. Her family had to sell their land in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to raise money for her treatment in New Delhi.

    "Sana was feeling better for five months till August when she suffered a relapse," Sadiya recalls. "When I was in the hospital in October 2016, I met an attendant of a cancer patient who was from Kashmir and narrated him the entire story. He suggested we put an appeal on Facebook.

    The appeal with a photo of Sana and a certificate from the hospital went viral. We were able to raise $40,000 in a month."

    Shareefa Wafai of Srinagar fills out a subscription to donate 20 rupees every month, February 2017.


    The genesis of #TwentyRupeesMiracle

    A group of businessmen in Srinagar heard of Sana's initiative, and launched a crowdfunding campaign called #TwentyRupeesMiracle in February. The campaign asked for contributions of 20 rupees, around $0.30, per month to the Lalla Ded Charity.

    The charity is named for a 14th century Kashmiri female poet whose name evokes "motherhood, affection, empathy, love and care," says one of the founders, Mubashir Aslam.

    Within days, more than 50,000 donors from around the world had signed up after seeing the campaign on Facebook.

    Aslam said they are hoping to double the number of registered donors to 100,000, which would bring in about $30,000 a month.


    Nafees Ahmad, a Kashmiri youth browses the Lalla Ded Charity website to register as a volunteer.

    Cancer on the rise

    Cancer cases have been on the rise in Kashmir in recent years, as they have across India.

    "The rise in cancer patients is not alarming but is increasing slowly," said Dr. Lone Maqbool, head of radiation oncology at the government-run Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS). 

    Maqbool said 95% of patients in Jammu and Kashmir visit SKIMS for treatment. 

    "The remaining 5% who can afford it visit cancer hospitals across India," he said, adding that treatment costs at SKIMS can range from $600 to $6,000, depending on the type of cancer.

    Considering that annual average per capita income in Jammu and Kashmir was just $970 in 2015, catastrophic healthcare expenditure is a major contributor to poverty. Public healthcare in India is grossly underfunded, amounting on average to $14 per capita per year, or just 1.04% of GDP. Most people, including the lower middle class, are dependent on private doctors for treatment.

    Being the only cancer treatment hospital in the Kashmir valley, SKIMS is preferred by patients because of the low-cost treatments available. Maqbool said cancer patients have to pay a registration fee of $1.50, and then they can use the treatment facilities.

    "The hospital provides anti-cancer drugs to registered patients at concessional rates," he said.

    Maqbool said the governments in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi provide monetary treatment assistance to cancer patients, but the assistance is "limited and given to those patients who are extremely poor."

    Lalla Ded Charity's tribute to Sana's life

    Before the advent of social media, traditional charities would travel to villages and towns to collect funds to help patients cover treatment costs. But the wide dispersal of communities and difficult terrain made it hard to reach many people. 

    There was also a lack of trust and credibility. With the emergence of new technology and social media, however, it has become easier for donors to check the bona fides of patients and charities.

    "Once we collect the money, it is sent to credible charity groups, which help patients in financial distress," Aslam said. "We send it to patients through Help Poor Voluntary Service and Cancer Society of Kashmir," he said.

    Towseef Ahmad Bhat, an 18-year-old student, was diagnosed with acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. His uncle, Muhammad Ashraf Bhat, said he was unable to move his legs.

    The doctors told him the disease could spread to Towseef's lungs and he would die in two years. Five days of treatment cost his family $35. Unable to afford this, Towseef's uncle circulated an appeal for help on social media, which caught the attention of the Lalla Ded Charity.

    The group sent $1,000 to the Help Poor Voluntary Service, which bought medicines for Towseef. "Today, he is feeling better and his health has improved," Ashraf Bhat said, adding that Towseef, who needed support to walk before treatment, is now able to move, though slowly, on his own. "Doctors have told us that Towseef would recover fully in four months."

    "We could not save Sana," said Sadiya. "But if Lalla Ded Charity can save someone's life by donating money, it would be a tribute to my sister and her battle."