Kerala is a state that I have always wanted to visit during my trips to India but never had the opportunity to travel to the west coast. The state borders Tamil Nadu on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. There is a range of hills, the Western Ghats, that divides Kerala from Tamil Nadu. When flying into Kerala, I was struck by the forests of palm trees and the hilly landscape. Kerala is a beautiful area of India. However, what interested me the most was learning about their educational and healthcare systems and the reason they are the most progressive state in those areas in India. Kerala has the highest literacy rates: 95% in urban areas and 94% in rural areas. They have a significantly higher life expectancy with women’s life expectancy at 76.3 years while for women in India overall is 64.2 years—more than a ten-year difference. They also have significantly lower rates of infant and child mortality compared to the rates for the country overall (www.censusindia.gov.in).
My first visit was to the city of Thalassery which is in the northern part of Kerala. I had a speaking engagement at the Malabar Cancer Centre (MCC) which is the only comprehensive cancer centre in northern Kerala. The Centre sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. A walkway lined with majestic palm trees leads up to the entrance of the main building. Dr. Jisha Abraham who is a psycho-oncologist and was trained at the Chennai Cancer Institute (WIA) was my guide for a tour of the facility. She introduced me to all of the departments—medical oncology, radiation, pathology, palliative care, and others.
I spent some time talking with staff of their department of Cancer Registry and Epidemiology. A fairly new department, they have been collecting incidence/mortality data in the resident population in Northern Kerala since 2014. The Registry is primarily concerned about cancer burden in the population and describing data on cancer incidence and survival. Lung cancer is the top cancer among men in the region and breast cancer among women. The incidence of lung cancer relates to the prevalence of tobacco smoking in the population. Tobacco fields in the region and the beedi industry are likely contributors. With the registry data, they can plan and evaluate the cancer control activities. (Unlike the U.S., not all of the Indian states have cancer registries).
The second cancer centre that I visited was MVR Cancer Centre and Research Institute in Calicut. Only one year old, the Centre was built in a beautiful rural area outside of Calicut. I conducted a day-long workshop and toured the Centre. There were many college students who attended and their enthusiasm for research and publishing manuscripts was contagious. (Or maybe they were just excited to meet an American and take dozens of selfies with me). Dr. Shameem Varikkodan organized the workshop and gave me a tour of the facility. Similar to Jisha, Shameem was a graduate of the psycho-oncology program at the Cancer Institute (WIA). It was a privilege to be invited to present at both Centres and I appreciated their warm receptions.
Between these two speaking engagements, I spent a few days of relaxation in Kochi. Kochi has a rich history of different immigrant groups from the Middle East (Arabia, Israel), Europe (Portuguese, Dutch, German), and Asia (China). Their influence can be seen throughout Fort Kochi which was a major trading port. I enjoyed a quiet day of cruising the backwaters in a boat rowed by two men—one in the front and one in the back.
I returned to Chennai on a night train—my first experience sleeping in a berth on a train. It was quite comfortable and I slept almost the entire 10-hour journey. I arrived in Chennai around 8:00 am—just enough time to go home, take a shower, and head to the International Conference on Emerging Trends in Psychology at the University of Madras where I presented a paper at 11:00 am.