Dr. Shanta | Country loses a crusader who revolutionised cancer treatment

In a lifetime devoted to her patients, she lived in a single room within the Adyar Cancer Institute premises, so that she would be available round the clock

Updated - November 28, 2021 02:06 pm IST

Published - January 19, 2021 07:31 am IST - Chennai

Dr. V. Shanta

Dr. V. Shanta

It was in the early hours of Tuesday, before much of the city had woken up, that information began to percolate about the passing of a pioneer in cancer care in the country and the chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute, Dr. V. Shanta.

The news broke on social media and as the loss started to sink in, all of Tamil Nadu sank into mourning one of its most prominent and respected personalities. The crowds that gathered at her funeral procession, spoke volumes of the impact that Dr. Shanta has had on various segments of society.

Tributes from PM, V-P

Tributes poured as the day progressed, with patients, colleagues, and political leaders talking of how she had touched their lives and improved the field of oncology. All of them were clear that Dr. Shanta occupied a unique space that will now be a void with her passing.

Among those who paid tributes to her were Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, apart from State leaders, and healthcare professionals from across the country.

Dr. Shanta was rushed to hospital after she complained of chest pain on Monday night at about 9 p.m. She initially insisted on being medically managed on campus, but colleagues at the Cancer Institute took a call to rush her to a private hospital, as the Institute is not a cardiac care centre. They said examinations showed she had a massive block that could not be rectified, and the end came shortly before 4 a.m.

Her body was placed in the old Cancer Institute premises, which she helped build along with her mentor S. Krishnamurthi, and several patients, their relatives, nurses, doctors and members of the public paid their homage.

Dr. Shanta was active until her hospitalisation, colleagues said, even though she had been feeling under the weather for a couple of days. Arvind Krishnamurthy, professor and head, Surgical Oncology, Cancer Institute, said Dr. Shanta never wanted to leave the Institute for treatment outside and was not for invasive ventilation.

“She was quite active till the very last day considering her age and frailty. She preferred medical management. She did not want any final rituals to be performed, and wished that her ashes should be sprinkled all over the Institute... She continued to be in control till the very end,” he added.

Right through the pandemic, Dr. Shanta continued to be concerned about the new challenges to health care brought on by the lockdown and expressed them eloquently in communication she sent to The Hindu. It deeply troubled her that many sick people could not be treated during the peak of the lockdown, and she was looking for multiple safe options to open up services again.

Affairs relating to the Institute — funding, infrastructure upgradation, helping more people with cancer, awareness generation activities — occupied her time wholly. She lived in a single room within the Cancer Institute premises, so that she would be available for patients round the clock.

It was in April 1955 that Dr. Shanta joined the Cancer Institute as its resident medical officer. She completed her MBBS in 1949 and M.D. in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1955. While she was selected to the post of assistant surgeon at the Women and Children’s Hospital, Madras by the Madras Public Service Commission, she joined the Cancer Institute, which was established in 1954 by the Women’s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund under the leadership of another medical pioneer, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy.

Over six decades

In her medical career spanning over 60 years, she focussed on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role along with Dr. Krishnamurthi in the development of the Institute from a cottage hospital of 12 beds to a comprehensive cancer centre, according to the Institute.

Dr. Shanta came from a family of eminent scientists, including two Nobel laureates in Physics — C.V. Raman and S. Chandrasekhar. She was responsible for the recognition and practice of medical oncology as a specialty and the creation of a separate medical oncology division at the Institute. The first super specialty course in surgical and medical oncology in India was introduced at the institute in 1984.

Dr. Shanta was on the World Health Organisation Advisory Committee on Cancer till March 2005. She was also convenor of the State Advisory Board on Cancer, and has been member of many ICMR committees.

Dr. Shanta was the recipient of Padma Shri in 1986, Padma Bhushan in 2006 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016. She was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2005. She has received many national and international awards.

Service on her mind

Doctors of the institute recalled her journey with Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and Dr. Krishnamurthi, and her efforts in building the institute brick by brick. She always emphasised on the ethos of the Institute as providing service for all and care for the needy. She often stressed on the need to pursue research and recalled Dr. Krishnamurthi’s passion for research and his driving mantra: “Today’s Research, Tomorrow’s Treatment”.

In one of the communications to The Hindu, she said, “The Cancer Institute has survived crises and come through stronger. Through all the difficult times, we never lost sight of our vision of top quality service to all, particularly the economically weaker sections”.

Dr. Shanta has also pointed out that the challenge in cancer today was early detection and prevention.

“We have screening centres in Villupuram, Tiruvannamalai, Gummidipoondi and Pudukottai because we want to dispel the fear of cancer in people by enabling them to understand that if you come early, cancer can be cured,” she said during an interview. Dr. Shanta did not lose any opportunity to reiterate the need for tobacco control and government support to implement the regulations.

On December 28, 2020, she participated in the launch of Tamil Nadu Cancer Registry Project Report 2020, a collaborative study by Cancer Institute and Department of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Tamil Nadu.

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