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Innocent Vareed Thekkethala: A Tribute To Actor, Former MP And A Cancer Survivor Who Advocated For Fellow Patients

The name “Innocent” is popular amongst Malayali households. Four generations grew up watching and enjoying excellent comedic performances and memorable characters portrayed by the late actor. During Malayalam cinema’s golden heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, practically every film included a few recognised faces, and Innocent was one of them. His passing dims the light of a generation of performers who produced a wave of outstanding performances.

Innocent Vareed Thekkethala has a 50-year career in Malayalam film. He also appeared in films in Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, and English. Innocent was a best-selling author as well as a Member of Parliament (MP) in India’s 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019), representing Kerala’s Chalakudy seat.

The actor was also a cancer survivor who, unlike many of his contemporaries who sought treatment in silence, was open about his illness and raised awareness. 

His cancer diagnosis

Innocent had mentioned how he felt an unusual throat pain about a decade ago. He got himself tested and underwent a biopsy. He was in a film shoot when noted oncologist Dr VP Gangadharan informed him of a “news.” Innocent could sense that it was something bad but found the inner strength to memorise the lines he had in that scene and completed the shoot. Afterwards, he was told that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. He had noted how such information causes a flurry of racing thoughts in one’s mind, including the realisation that he must leave his loved ones behind. He did, however, find the inner strength to overcome the condition.

What is non-Hodgkin's lymphoma? 

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a blood cancer that begins in the human body’s lymphatic system, where the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell (WBC), start to divide and grow abnormally into the bloodstream. These lymphocytes can form tumours throughout the body. According to research, 1 out of every 43 men and 1 out of every 53 women can develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in their lifetime. However, the epidemiology of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in India is less when compared to Europe and North America. In India, the age-adjusted incidence rates for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in men and women are 2.9/100,000 and 1.5/100,000, respectively.

What are the symptoms of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma? 

The most visible symptom of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a swollen lymph node in the neck, armpit or groin region. Oral lesions of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma manifest in the form of tooth mobility, swelling or ulcer, unexplained dental pain, or lesions. Actor Innocent experienced a lesion in his oral cavity as part of the disease. 

Other signs and symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are as follows; 

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain​

Swelling in the neck or abdomen

Swelling in the neck or abdomen ​

Chest pain

Chest pain​

Frequent coughs

Frequent coughs​

Breathing difficulties

Swelling in the neck or abdomen 

Fever and chills

Fever and chills ​

Night sweats

Night sweats​

Unhealthy weight loss

Unhealthy weight loss ​

How did actor Innocent spread cancer awareness?

The late actor underwent chemotherapy to overcome the disease. While he was being treated, his wife Alice underwent screening and testing for cancer, including mammography. The mammography revealed that she had breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most commonly reported cancer in women, particularly older ones. Breast cancer is relatively easy to cure compared to other cancers because it can be surgically removed without causing major implications in the human body aside from physical appearance. Unfortunately, women frequently disregard warning signals and symptoms due to a lack of awareness. 

His experiences dealing with cancer, including his wife’s expected diagnosis, compelled him to spread better awareness about the disease. Fear and stigma around the disease coerced a lot of people to suffer in silence. Artists who have cancer often get treatment in silence because they fear the loss of opportunities and other taboos that come with the illness. Innocent himself experienced uncomfortable stares from people and comments over his physical state. In an interview with Ramesh Pisharody, he said, “people used to come to my house to visit me and simply stare at me for several minutes. One person asked if I was all dressed up to see god. People need to know how to communicate with patients.” 

During treatment, he participated in the activities of organisations like the Kochi Cancer Society. He talked to other cancer patients and tried to keep them motivated and positive.

He also spoke on several platforms about the importance of early screening, mental health support, and better funds for cancer patients. 

As a Lok Sabha Member, Innocent advocated affordable mammography and cancer screening for the general public. Innocent became an idol of sorts for society as a celebrity who openly publicised his cancer success story, according to Dr VP Gangadharan, a prominent oncologist, in an interview with Malayalam media. 

Innocent also called out the pseudo-scientific bits of advice and medical malpractices associated with cancer treatment. During his treatment, a lot of stars and well-wishers advised him not to undergo chemotherapy but to use phytomedicines and potions made from fruits. He was also asked to pray more instead of undergoing treatment

‘Prayer is important. Faith is important. I know I am alive because of many people’s prayers. But, you need proper medical guidance to beat cancer,’ he had mentioned in a speech during Alappuzha Medifest. Dr Gangadharan praised Innocent for remaining in India for cancer treatment instead of going abroad, like other prominent artists. Innocent’s success against cancer highlighted how India’s medicines, at the time, were also as effective as foreign ones. Dr Gangadharan also accompanied Innocent during his cancer awareness campaigns. 

Cancer is regarded as an unjust death sentence, yet Innocent’s approach to the disease was that it could be treated with a sense of humour. He even penned a book titled ‘Cancer Wardile Chiri’ (transl – laughter in cancer ward).

Dr VP Gangadharan confirmed that the 75-year-old actor died due to post-COVID-19 complications and not due to cancer. He was in remission at the time of his death. 

Innocent remains a notable success story and a strong advocate for patients and survivors. 

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