To mark the centenary of International Women's Day, The Hindu Sunday Magazine will feature remarkable Indian women from various walks of life who have made a difference to society by their work. We begin this year-long series by saluting Dr. V. Shanta, a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2005, for her service to cancer patients.

The C word may signify cancer for thousands of patients but it also symbolises care, cure and compassion ? all the qualities that Dr. V. Shanta, Executive Chairperson (honorary) Cancer Institute (WIA), Chennai, and a pioneering cancer specialist, who has and continues to do outstanding work in the area of cancer control and treatment, has come to stand for.

In a career spanning over 5 decades and still counting, 83-year-old Dr. Shanta along with the late Dr. S. Krishnamurthi (formerly Director and Scientific Director and Advisor, Research and Planning Cancer Institute, and son of the founder Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy) has ably steered the institution and seen it metamorphose from a 12-bed cottage hospital to a 431 bedded, landmark cancer centre of national and international repute.

While state-of-the-art technology and newer treatment options have made for excellent outcomes, there are some things that do not change for the patient. Says Dr. Shanta, ?In decades gone by, cancer was considered a fatal disease, but today a lot of common cancers can be cured if detected early. Yet, when the patient comes to you, he/ she is stricken with fear and invariably pops the question ?Doctor will I be alright?' The doctor must inspire total trust in the patient and the patient must get the feeling that the doctor is doing everything possible under the given circumstances ? right through the evaluation and treatment period and thereafter. Unfortunately, this is not so in much of the medical world today. It is something I try to impress upon medical students and young graduates whenever I have an opportunity to speak to them.?

For a doctor there can be no better testimonials than from patients. Susheela Viswanathan says, ?When I first learnt that I had cancer I went to Dr. Shanta since she deals with it day in and day out. The very way she touched and examined me was simply fantastic. All my fear was removed. At the institute all the doctors are like that. When you are afraid and don't know what's happening they are very comforting.?

Ramamani Ravi, another patient, says, ?Dr. Shanta has developed a wonderful institution. The team acts in total unison. We had confidence building, love, care and attention not just from one person but from the entire team. I felt very comfortable and safe. Dr. Shanta has been an excellent role model and has imbued these qualities in everyone.?

Talking to Dr. Shanta, as she summons up the energy to speak her mind, one realises that they don't make doctors like her anymore.

Capturing the spirit of times gone by, when values such as caring and compassion were inborn in most medical professionals, she reminisces: ?William Osler, one of the greatest physicians said, Medicine is both an art and a science. The art is the care and the healing and the science is the curing. A doctor should treat both the disease and the patient. When I was a student, we lived in an environment where someone cared for somebody. And as young doctors we imbibed these values just by watching and observing senior doctors ? without actually being taught these things. Today, the environment is poisoned with corruption and capitation fees. It is such a pity, and in a way the present generation is responsible for it.?

But what gladdens her heart is the fact that cancer patients ?whom we could not save those days can now be given a new lease of life. I have wept in the past when paediatric patients had a relapse. Now there is a 60 per cent chance of cure for all paediatric cancers.?

In a landscape crowded with corporate hospitals and medical practice becoming commercial it is heartening to note that the Cancer Institute treats 60 per cent of its patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates.

Shun inequality

?There must be no difference, no divide between the treatment and management of the disease to the rich and poor patient. One must feel deeply and passionately about it. Like Martin Luther King said ?Of all inequalities, inequalities in health care is the most inhuman',? stresses Dr. Shanta.

The way forward in the area of cancer control is research according to Dr. Shanta. ?We must focus on the more difficult diseases for which we have no answers yet. Gene research is very important as is Gene profiling, to learn which patient will respond, and what cancers will spread. The thrust must be on early detection and prevention so that a majority can be cured.?

Being a woman doctor and treating a sizeable number of women patients, she offers insights into their psyche. ?Women always seek treatment last ? they wait till the son has given his exams or the daughter's marriage is conducted. But when the man of the house is ill he is well taken care of. The favour is not always returned when the woman is ill. Women should feel empowered and not always depend on someone else.?

Coming from an illustrious family with Dr. C.V. Raman and Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekar for granduncle and maternal uncle respectively, it was ?easy? she says, for her to get an education and follow her heart's dream of pursuing medicine. While the family was very encouraging, they were also concerned that the petite Shanta may not be able to withstand the rigours of a demanding profession like medicine.

Being in a man's world was never a problem. She does concede having faced odd occasions of harassment early on in her career, but brushes it off saying, ?It all depends on how you handle it.?

There is no question of rest for a warrior like Dr. Shanta, who has been conferred with the Padmabhushan and the Ramon Magsaysay award. ?I have no hobbies, no recreation simply because there is no time.? Her every waking moment is consumed in cancer prevention and treatment. Ask her where she sees herself five years from now and pat comes the answer: ?I would like to die in harness.?

Dear readers,

At the end of 52 weeks, you can vote for the top achiever in a poll.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012