Incredible resilience, determination in fight against cancer

His smiling demeanour and charisma always left a lasting impression on anyone who met him.
Former CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. (File photo | B P Deepu, EPS)
Former CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. (File photo | B P Deepu, EPS)

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: His smiling demeanour and charisma always left a lasting impression on anyone who met him. This didn’t change even when Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was battling cancer, recall the doctors who treated him. Moreover, he faced cancer with the same resilience and determination that he fought his political battles.

According to doctors, these traits helped Kodiyeri maintain his quality of life till the very end. Dr Aju Mathew, a medical oncologist, met Kodiyeri on a night in October 2019 when the latter was in a distressed situation. Dr Aju flew from Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram the same day Kodiyeri landed from the US after a tiring chemotherapy session at MD Anderson Cancer Center. The doctors from the US had assigned Dr Aju to take care of the follow-up treatment of Kodiyeri’s pancreatic cancer.

“I saw a smiling Kodiyeri, who we all are familiar with, at his home though he was exhausted after the chemotherapy in the US,” said Dr Aju. His immediate task was to explain the seriousness of the illness and thin survival chances for patients with similar conditions. “After the briefing, Kodiyeri said he understood the situation and wanted to fight it,” the doctor said.

In the initial months, Dr Aju travelled to Thiruvananthapuram every week to initiate chemotherapy for Kodiyeri. According to him, three factors helped Kodiyeri carry on with his quality of life for three years, when it was found that most pancreatic cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis.

“He outlived others because of the kind of care he got from the family, party and staff. More importantly, he showed unbelievable persistence and resilience. He would also listen to his doctors,” said Dr Aju. Treating a mass leader like Kodiyeri was no easy task. Firstly, he was getting a lot of suggestions on taking alternative medicine, a scenario many cancer patients and their families could identify with.

The next challenge was to fix a treatment schedule for a busy leader like Kodiyeri. He remained committed to evidence-based treatment and supported the doctors. But he also made compromises with the treatment schedules for party work, which often made the doctors nervous. The local body and assembly elections that came in between disrupted the schedules. But Kodiyeri found time for chemo sessions during the campaigns.

The treatment period saw many ups and downs in Kodiyeri’s health, as with the nature of the disease. But he kept the doctors and other caregivers engaged with active discussions. “I would often see him watching movies, mostly light-hearted ones. He rarely talked about his disease. We discussed many contemporary issues and about politicians across party lines,” said Dr Aju. Dr Boben Thomas, a medical and paediatric oncologist who joined the treatment team later, said: “Kodiyeri’s positive attitude helped the doctors gain confidence.”

“He fought cancer with extraordinary courage. He never hid his condition and his fighting spirit helped in the treatment,” said Dr Boben, who accompanied Kodiyeri to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai.
The doctors had formed an international tumour board drawing 10 experts from different parts of the world to discuss Kodiyeri’s treatment. The CPM leader also joined some of the meetings, virtually. According to doctors, the prevalence of pancreatic cancer is increasing in the state.

In Kodiyeri’s case, it was detected at an early stage. But in most cases, the diagnosis is made only at a later stage. There are no screening tests for pancreatic cancer and it is very aggressive. It is going to be the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the US soon, said Dr Aju. As far as Kodiyeri was concerned, the fight against cancer too was to be taken head-on, as any political fight. “When an enemy comes to attack us, would we sit idle? We fight back,” he once told TNIE.

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