Changing lives: Young woman from Bengaluru wins prestigious Diana Award for empowering cancer patients and caregivers

As the founder of the Lalitha Foundation, Swetha Kannan has transformed the lives of cancer patients and caregivers through education, screening, and psychotherapy.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jul 04, 2023 | 10:00 AM Updated Jul 04, 2023 | 10:00 AM

Swetha Kannan, Founder, CEO of The Lalitha Foundation is the Young Social Entrepreneur in India from India who received prestigious honor in memory of Princess Diana.

The Queen of Hearts — as she wished to be known — would have turned 62 on 1 July, had she been alive.

After her divorce from the then Prince of Wales and now King Charles-III in 1996, Diana announced her decision to the quit her patronage of more than 100 charities, but continued her patronage with six charities, one being the Royal Marsden NHS Trust, a cancer fund.

A year later, after her separation from Prince Charles, a high-speed car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris on 31 August, 1997, took Diana away eternally from the several living souls her initiatives had touched.

Yet, her legacy and compassion for fellow beings remained intact through the innumerable philanthropists she had inspired in her brief 36 years.

Swetha Kannan, a 23-year-old social entrepreneur from Bengaluru, is one among them.

Through empowered young people like Swetha making a positive change, Diana, once the Princess of Wales, still lives on, as the Queen of Hearts.

The Lalitha Foundation

Swetha, currently a PhD scholar at the University of Cambridge, was honoured with The Diana Award for her outstanding contributions towards creating a positive change in her community.

Swetha Kannan with her grandmother and her oncologist. The Lalitha Foundation was started in memory of her grandmother.

Swetha Kannan (Right) with her grandmother and her oncologist. The Lalitha Foundation was started in memory of her grandmother. (Supplied)

She founded the Lalitha Foundation in 2019 to improve the psychological well-being of cancer patients in India.

Inspired by personal experiences as a primary caregiver, Swetha dedicated herself to transforming the lives of numerous cancer patients and their caregivers.

“My grandmother, Lalitha, was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and it was during my time as a primary caregiver that I realised just how important psychological well-being is for the overall quality of life of cancer patients,” Swetha told South First.

Swetha explained that she wanted to break the stigma around mental health and make care equitable and accessible to the needy.

In India, there are more than 1.4 million cancer patients, and it is estimated that at least one-third of them are also dealing with chronic mental illness.

Also read: 6-year-old asked doctor to shield his cancer diagnosis from parents

Challenges galore

Regrettably, the country faces several challenges that hinder the provision of adequate mental health support to these individuals.

Factors such as low literacy rates, the socio-cultural stigma surrounding mental health, and a severe shortage of professional mental health workers contribute to the problem.

“Shockingly, over 50 percent of cancer patients in India remain undiagnosed for mental illnesses, while less than 20 percent have access to standardised psychological assistance,” Swetha said.

“Consequently, a significant proportion of cancer patients, around one out of three, end up with a poor quality of life, often leading to long-term physical and psychological complications and even death,” she added.

Also Read: Bengaluru won $150,000 global award for tobacco control efforts

Healing touch

The Lalitha Foundation has made significant strides in providing education, screening, and psychotherapy to thousands of cancer patients and caregivers under Swetha’s leadership.

“Recognising the urgent need for support during the Covid-19 pandemic, the foundation also mobilised emergency psychological services to ensure that individuals affected by cancer had access to vital mental health support,” she said.

In addition to their direct impact on patients, the Lalitha Foundation prioritised collaboration and education. It trained healthcare providers in psychological care, enabling them to better serve the needs of cancer patients.

Additionally, the Foundation partnered with schools to deliver mental health education programmes, spreading awareness and reducing stigma surrounding mental health issues.

All about the award

Swetha’s tireless efforts did not go unnoticed. The Diana Award, supported by HRH The Prince of Wales and The Duke of Sussex, represents the highest accolade for young individuals involved in social action or humanitarian work.

The recognition is a testament to Swetha’s commitment and the positive impact she has made in her community.

Reflecting on the honour, Swetha expressed gratitude and emphasised the importance of promoting equitable access to psychological care.

She said they acknowledged the team and supporters who have contributed to the success of the Lalitha Foundation and highlighted the need for continued collaboration on a global scale.

The Foundation which began in Bengaluru is now working in various areas with people of other South and North Indian states as well.

“I was brought up being taught that a little kindness and compassion can go a long way. When I started my non-profit, it was really with the hope of being able to channelise kindness and support to those really in need, and alongside break the stigma around mental health,” she said while expressing joy on receiving the award.

“Receiving the Diana Award for this work has been very humbling. I’ve always resonated with Princes Diana’s legacy and I am glad that I can leverage lessons from her life to make a tangible difference where possible. It’s an extremely prestigious honour, but does again simply reflect on the fact that love and kindness go a long way,” she added.

Also read: Does tobacco cause cancer in all? HCG study aims to find the answer

Honour for more Indians

The Diana Awards put the spotlight on more than 180 young people from across the world. Several youngsters from India have won the prestigious award in 2023.

Divaa Uthkarsha, a 14-year-old student from Bengaluru, is a passionate young leader making a difference in the world.

She started ‘Project Surya’, which aims to brighten the lives of children from lower socioeconomic strata by helping them manage their type-one diabetes effectively.

Divaa has raised over $6,800, providing life-saving insulin to less fortunate diabetic patients, conducted in-depth sessions with diabetic children, and educated over 10,000 people about Type One and Type Two diabetes.

She has petitioned the Government of India to make insulin accessible and affordable. Project Surya has a three-pronged plan of action: Awareness, Advocacy and Funding.

Riddhi Javali, a 17-year-old student from Bengaluru, founded ‘Project Repeat’, a non-profit that provides girls in rural areas with sustainable menstrual hygiene products.

Riddhi’s aim is to improve health, cost, and the environment by distributing reusable cloth pad kits and educating students on menstrual hygiene.

‘Project Repeat’ impacted over 400 government schoolgirls in Karnataka through their visits to schools and awareness sessions.

Riddhi has also demonstrated excellent leadership skills and inspires their peers to work towards a social cause. Despite facing challenges in funding and age bias, Riddhi has persevered and continues to make a positive impact.

Gunisha Agarwal is a passionate advocate for educational equality and climate action. During the Covid pandemic, she founded the ‘HELP Chennai initiative’, which has helped over 600 underprivileged students access online education by providing digital devices.

Gunisha advocated for increasing climate change awareness and female representation in climate action as a consultant for She Changes Climate. Her commitment and resourcefulness have enabled them to make a positive difference in her community and become a role model for their peers.

Sanya Saket, 21, is an activist and founder of ‘Scarlet Udaan’, a global youth organisation that raises awareness on female genital cutting and empowers young people to take action. Sanya has been recognised by the UN for her efforts and is a Gender Equality leader with UN Women.

Amey Agarwal, who battled nephrotic syndrome for 15 years, has dedicated himself to raising awareness and providing assistance for those affected by the condition through his non-profit organisation, ‘Nephrohelp’.

Amey has helped over 300 families with medicine and necessities, donated masks to hospitals, and organised awareness campaigns and health check-up camps.

Uday Bhatia, a 17-year-old student, ingeniously tackled the country’s power crisis with his ground-breaking invention, the Outage Guard bulb. This low-cost solution is designed to provide uninterrupted lighting for up to 10 hours during power cuts. His brand ‘Uday Electric’, has already illuminated over 950 households in rural India across five states and sold over 3,000 units.

Rhea Chopra, founder of ‘MyBody,’ is dedicated to raising awareness and recognition for eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Her organisation conducts workshops, provides peer counselling, and have created a support group for individuals struggling with these issues.

Rhea’s personal experience of being body-shamed and bullied inspired her to make a difference, and she has successfully reached over 500 children through interactive workshops, while also collaborating with other organisations and expanding their scope.

Saanvi Dhingra founded the non-profit organisation ‘Cinderella’s Got Wings’ in June 2021 to empower underprivileged girls by providing them with financial education and teaching them basic skills like sewing.

She also launched a campaign to teach underprivileged women how to make reusable sanitary napkins. Saanvi has chapters of the organisation located globally, and the organisation has sold over 5,000 products and distributed more than 30,000 reusable sanitary napkins.

Taarush Grover is a 16-year-old student-entrepreneur who founded the not-for-profit organisation, ‘Volanity’. Through community-based learning models, Taarush aims to provide holistic development to underprivileged high school students across India. He has identified obstacles that hindered students’ growth and development and created an interface that enables potential volunteers to choose volunteering slots.

Manasi Gupta is the founder of ‘Huesofthemind Foundation’, a non-profit organisation that focuses on advocating mental well-being and making mental health services accessible and affordable. Through the foundation, Manasi has impacted over 50,000 lives through innovative campaigns, projects, and events held globally.

Anika Jha‘s app, ‘cHHange —  It’s Normal,’ tackles the knowledge gap in puberty by providing reliable, personalised information to adolescents. It features a chatbot, an information library, an emotion-based game, and a platform for connecting with peers facing similar issues, offering inspiration, expert advice, and more.

With users across more than 40 countries, the app has received positive reviews and accolades, including the Grand Prize in the Technovation Girls competition.

Het Joshi’s non-profit, the ‘Adira Foundation’, focuses on menstrual equity, providing sanitary products and education in remote areas of India. Her work addresses the root cause of girls dropping out of school by introducing conventional pads and sustainable alternatives like menstrual cups and cloth pads.

Haniya Kaur is the co-founder of the non-profit organisation, ‘Ladki Padhao’, which aims to promote educational rights for women. Haniya is passionate about educating underprivileged communities and has organised financial literacy sessions, self-defense classes, and menstrual hygiene initiatives for women.

Jivya Lamba‘s ‘WeCycle’ campaign has had a significant social impact by providing bicycles with GPS trackers to teenage girls in rural communities, enabling them to continue their education safely. The campaign has reduced high school dropout rates among girls and increased their participation in their studies.

Taruni Malhotra‘s fundraising and advocacy efforts for Parivartan Special School during the Covid pandemic led to the creation of social startup, ‘Nai Subah Foundation’, and its first initiative, Project Nishant, providing much-needed support to the school and its students during a financial crisis.

Pawan Patil is a social innovator who has made a measurable impact in rural and tribal villages, focusing on sanitation and education. He founded the non-profit organisation, ‘Tubelight Foundation for Social Innovations’, with the vision to bring technological innovations to solve rural community problems.

Agastya Sinha‘s platform, ‘The Cloud Canvas’, is an inclusive learning and employability platform that empowers micro-entrepreneurs in the creator economy. The platform provides skilling and livelihood opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities and members of the transgender community, and has reached over 100 teachers and 8,500 learners across seven countries.

Nirvaan Somany’s ‘Project Jeans – Blue to Green’ repurposes old jeans into sleeping bags for people experiencing homelessness. With dual passions for the environment and helping those in need, he collects used denim to minimise waste and raise awareness about fast fashion’s environmental impact.