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How Dr V Shanta changed the face of cancer care in India

Instead of specialising in gynaecology and obstetrics like women doctors of her time, Dr V Shanta chose to follow her own path to becoming a pioneering cancer specialist in the country

Dr V Shanta, a legend in cancer treatment in India.
Dr V Shanta, a legend in cancer treatment in India. (PTI)

Neville J Bilimoria, the founder and trustee of the Neville Endeavours Foundation, remembers meeting Dr V Shanta in 2017 when he wanted to raise funds for cancer-affected children through the Dawn to Dusk (D2D) marathon, a Chennai-based charity run. "She was a simple person," recalls Bilimoria, adding that she was helpful and participatory right through the endeavour. Dr Shanta—all of 91 at the time—even wore a D2D T-shirt over her saree and turned up at the event to flag off the children's run. “There were a lot of children who took pictures with her. I was so happy that a person like her could come and be with all of us.”

The death of Dr Shanta, senior oncologist and chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, on 19 January has left a gaping lacuna in the medical world, one impossible to fill. Tributes from hundreds of people, including patients, former students, employees, politicians and cine stars, have flooded social media since news of her death, early Tuesday morning, trickled in.

“Dr V Shanta will be remembered for her outstanding efforts to ensure top-quality cancer care. The Cancer Institute at Adyar, Chennai is at the forefront of serving the poor and downtrodden,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

Actress Khushbu Sundar, mirrored his sentiment, posting on the microblogging platform that Dr Shanta was an inspiration and a pioneer in the medical world. “A very well-known oncologist who healed millions. More importantly, came across as a mother caring for her patients. Her smile n words touched millions of hearts.” Actor Sarathkumar, the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi party founder, also offered a tribute via Twitter. Dr Shanta’s death was a personal and irreplaceable loss to cancer patients, their families and the medical fraternity, he wrote. “Today, cancer survivors are proudly walking on the street, fighting the disease with confidence thanks to #DrShanta ‘s selfless work,” he posted.

Viswanathan Shanta was born on 11 March 1927 in Mylapore, Chennai, into a highly accomplished family, consisting of two Nobel laureates: physicist S Chandrasekhar, her uncle, co-won the prize in 1983, and Sir CV Raman, her grand-uncle and also a physicist, won it in 1930. She studied at the National Girls High School—now PS Sivaswamy Higher Secondary School—before completing her MBBS (1949), DGO (1952) and MD (1955) from Madras Medical College, specialising in gynaecology and obstetrics.

In an interview with Rumani Agnihotri for PlexusMD, an online community of doctors, Dr Shanta pointed out that it was the norm in the 1940s and 1950s. “Most women medical professionals specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology,” she said. She, too, had followed the routine practice as the avenues back then were very few. “My encounter with cancer and the Cancer Institute (WIA) was destiny,” she said in that same interview.

In 1950, while posted as a house surgeon at the newly-opened cancer ward at the Government General Hospital, she met Dr S Krishnamurthi. Impressed by the work he was doing there, she decided to switch specialisation. In 1955, after completing her MD, she turned down an offer to work in the Government Maternity Hospital. Instead, she joined the Cancer Institute, established in 1954 by Dr S Krishnamurthi's mother, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr Shanta had begun volunteering there the previous year.

In an August 2005 interview with NDTV, soon the Ramon Magsaysay Award was conferred on her, she talked about the genesis of the hospital. “We started life with a hospital of 12 beds with two doctors,” she recalled. Additionally, there was no perception or understanding of cancer back then, she said. When Mrs Muthulakshmi Reddy approached the health minister of Tamil Nadu at that time, seeking funds for a cancer hospital, he was not encouraging. He believed it was a waste of money, she recalled. “He said that only old people get cancer, and anyway they die.”

Dr Shantha, who went on to train in oncology in Toronto in 1957 and bone marrow transplantation in the UK in 1958, knew the truth was different, and spent her life proving precisely that. Known for her unwavering crusade against the emperor of all maladies, a 67-year-long battle that only ended with her demise, she campaigned vigorously for the early detection and prevention of cancer.

“She gave this a lot of importance," says Dr Vidhubala, a psycho-oncologist, who worked with Dr Shanta for almost 18 years. Her other significant contributions included the setting up a cancer registry in India, initiating cancer screening programmes and establishing a pediatric oncology unit at the institute, saving innumerable lives in the process. “She will live forever in every cancer survivor,” says Dr Vidhubala.

Today, the Cancer Institute is a behemoth of an institution boasting of 535 beds, a research division, a college of oncological sciences, and a preventive oncology division. The institute, which provides state-of-art treatment for all—40% of its patients are treated free—sees over 15,672 new patients and 140,935 follow-up cases, annually. Over the years, Dr Shanta received several awards for her contributions to society: the IARC Award in 1997, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005, the Padma Bhushan in 2006 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2016, among others.

Despite all these accolades, she remained humble, accessible and highly involved, continuing to live in a spartan flat at the institute till the end of her days. Subha J Rao, a writer and consultant editor, who coordinated flood relief helplines in 2015, recalled speaking to her due to a prank call. “I got a call late at night saying that an ambulance was needed to bring a patient to the Adyar Cancer Institute,” remembers Rao. Concerned, she decided that it was best to check before proceeding further. So she picked up the phone and called the institute. Dr Shanta picked up the phone. She was livid that someone could would such a thing, says Rao. Dr Shanta told her that the institute had enough waiting ambulances already. “I was amazed at how she handled calls with such composure at a time of great stress,” Rao adds.

Dr Shanta was rushed to Apollo Hospital around 9 pm on Monday night after she complained of chest pain. She passed away at 3.55 am on Tuesday after attempts to remove a blockage in her heart were unsuccessful. She was 93. "I never expected she would go so soon. When I met her a few months ago, she seemed so strong," says Bilimoria. "She showed a way for people to come together and do great things for great causes."

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