A Warrior on Many Fronts…

By Scott Dsouza July 3, 2024

From becoming the first woman from the Marwari community to join the Indian Army to emerging as the pioneer woman paratrooper from the the Indian Army Dental Corps, Dr. Captain Reeta Rajkishor Biyani also known as Ritu Biyani, has had a journey of courage and resilience.

Army Veteran, Dental Surgeon, Adventurer—Paratrooper, Skydiver, Mountaineer, Rally Driver and Breast Cancer Warrior turned Campaigner, Dr. Captain Reeta Rajkishor Biyani also known as Ritu Biyani defied conventional barriers, battled cancer and has had a remarkable life journey. Breaking ground as the first woman from her community to join the Indian Armed Forces, she ventured into remote areas near the border to provide dental care and even became India’s first lady paratrooper in the Army Dental Corps.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, Ritu turned her struggle into a nationwide pioneering campaign for cancer awareness and patient advocacy, blending science, adventure sports, and cause. Her Project High>>>Ways expedition raised awareness across India, covering over 30,220 kilometres in 177 days and conducting numerous workshops. Ritu’s initiatives extend globally, breaking stereotypes by including men in breast cancer awareness and reaching marginalised communities in difficult terrains.

She’s a three-time ‘Limca Book of Records’ holder, and the first cancer warrior to trek Siachen Glacier and compete in Raid-De-Himalayas. In 2011, she was invited as an external expert for the WHO Guideline Development Group on the referral of suspected breast and cervix cancer cases at Primary Health Centres in Low and Middle-Income Countries. Her other initiatives also include disaster relief and COVID-19 pandemic aid. Dr. Captain Ritu Biyani’s journey embodies resilience, courage, and compassion, inspiring countless others worldwide.

Ritu’s story takes place in a somewhat small family setting, which contrasts with the expansive networks associated with the Marwari clan. She was exposed to a multiplicity of cultures during her youth, transcending linguistic and socio-economic divisions, thanks to her father’s intellectual surroundings. Education was the cornerstone of Ritu’s upbringing, a value instilled amidst the evolving societal norms of the ’60s. Despite being raised in an era where academia often overshadowed extracurricular pursuits, she found herself drawn to sports, particularly athletics, volleyball and badminton, balancing academic excellence with athletic fervour.

She tells us a little about her journey. “I come from a humble, middle-income family. My father, Professor R. S. Biyani, was a civil engineer who switched to the education field, becoming a professor at various government engineering colleges in Maharashtra. It was uncommon as we Marwaris are looked at as a business community. Later on, I completed my training to be a dental surgeon at the Government Dental College in Nagpur.”

Ritu’s life was shaped in the pre-digital age wherein radio broadcasts and newspapers served as the primary means of communication with the outside world. In their home, Ameen Sayani’s rich voice could be heard telling stories of national passion at parades and events. Ritu adds, “I grew up listening to the stories of my uncles who fought in India’s freedom struggle. My mother, Asha Biyani, used to say that when the narration of the 15th August and 26th January Parade bands would air on the radio, I would begin parading in the house. As a young kid, I did not watch too many movies, I read several books in Marathi which had some connection with the army but yes, Balraj Sahni’s movie ‘Haqeeqat’, made a huge impact on me. All these possibly played a role in me joining the Armed Forces.”

Chasing dreams

Ritu harboured dreams of joining the Indian Armed Forces, and the National Cadet Corps (NCC) gave her a glimpse of the Army during her time in college. Despite her studies as a dental surgeon and her interest in badminton at university, the allure of military service beckoned to her. An advertisement in a newspaper cemented her ambitions, thrusting her into the daunting world of Army interviews and medical examinations, testing her mental and physical fitness, an important turning point for a young woman from a civilian family.

Ritu began her Army journey with intensive training at the AMC Training Centre in Lucknow after successfully navigating the difficult selection procedure. The initial induction instilled discipline and a tenacity for fighting while also honing her armament and warfare skills. Following that, she received specialised dental training suited to military requirements, preparing her for deployment into a variety of environments.

Her first posting in Sikkim was the start of a brilliant military career marked by steadfast dedication and filial loyalty. Ritu shares, “When I joined the Indian Army in November 1981, I didn’t know I was the first woman from the Marwari community to do so. My parents were worried when I told them about my posting in Sikkim. However, I promised them that whenever I shifted from one area to another, I would inform them, as I felt it was my duty to do so.”

Ritu’s journey through the Army and beyond demonstrates the transformational potential of various experiences. Despite cultural expectations, she embraced the sartorial freedom provided by her military service, foregoing the ‘traditional attire’ in favour of the practical outfit of a paratrooper. The Army’s secular ethos, as well as her peripatetic sojourns, expanded her views, resulting in an expansive world view suited to the tapestry of human variation.

Battling an enemy within

In September 2000, when Ritu had just set-up her private dental practice in Pune, she was hit with the hard news of her cancer which upended the balance of her life, presenting an existential threat. Ritu opens up about her cancer journey, “I was visiting my doctor for a medical issue, completely unrelated to breast cancer. My doctor casually asked if I would like to get a complete examination and I agreed. It was then that my doctor told me she felt a lump which I should get checked. After that, I did visit a cancer specialist but I was told it was a benign tumour. Fast forward to three months, I saw suspicious signs. After observing it for three days, I did a biopsy and learnt that I had cancer. But the news did not come as a shock as I had mentally prepared myself for it.”

Ritu bravely and coolly navigated the complexity of cancer therapy, communicating openly and honestly with all parties involved, including her eight-year-old daughter. This created a climate of acceptance in her family, relieving the weight of concealment and encouraging compassion in the face of hardship. Ritu, who personified fortitude in the face of difficulty, bravely endured the ordeal of surgeries and chemotherapy and emerged from the cancer crucible with dignity.

Transforming into a force for good

Following her treatment, Ritu with her then 14-yearold daughter Ms. Tista started a nationwide awareness campaign called Project High>>>Ways... in an effort to eradicate the stigma, ignorance, and myths associated with cancer. In 2006, five and a half years post-cancer, the mother-daughter duo amalgamated a rare blend of science, adventure sports and cause to help communities at large. They set an unparalleled pace of breast, cervix and oral cancer awareness and motivational campaigns across the country.

The gruelling journey took them across the length and breadth of the country, covering more than 30,000 kilometres, raising awareness in even the remotest of areas.

Her own journey through cancer gave legitimacy to her campaign, enhancing the impact of her message and promoting hope in the face of despair.

Beyond quantitative measures, Project High>>>Ways... had a profound effect on the communities it passed through. In the face of cancer, Ritu’s compassion and perseverance helped to create empathy and understanding across ethnic divides. Through this grassroots movement was born her NGO, HIGH>>>WAYS... INFINITE which exists to help reduce the incidence of advanced cancer cases and ensure that no one faces the illness alone in silence and ignorance.

In the service of society

Through her pioneering borderless drive, Ritu empowers people and impacts lives: ‘Before, Through and Beyond’ cancer. She works on bridging grassroots (healthy populace) and those affected by cancer through knowledge, resources and expertise across the continuum of cancer from prevention, treatment, end of life care and beyond.

Since its inception, her NGO has conducted 2700+ cancer awareness workshops in 359 remote, rural and urban places across 23 States and 4 Union Territories covering over 2,09,000+ kilometres. Around 3,25,000+ people have been empowered with cancer literacy and 5500+ patients and their caregivers globally have been navigated through their cancer journeys. The project has also provided financial and resource aid to 750+ poor patients.

All’s well that ends well

Ritu’s tale demonstrates the unwavering resolve of the human spirit—overcoming her own hardship to show others the way. She says, “You must face your fear head-on, particularly in the context of potentially having any scary or lifethreatening medical condition. Delaying action only makes matters worse; if it happens to be cancer, postponing treatment allows it to progress further. While fear is natural, numerous survivors attest to the possibility of overcoming it. Don’t miss out on the chance to seek help promptly. Cancer doesn’t wait for fear to subside; it continues to advance regardless.” Her path, intertwined with survival and service, is a perfect example of the transformational power of compassion and courage. She truly exemplifies the spirit of service in her unwavering fight against cancer—shining hope in even the deepest corners of despair of those going through the odds. Ritu concludes, “Still... miles to go under the blue skies...”