Dr. V. Shanta - A ‘Mother Teresa’ to cancer patients

Dr. V. Shanta. File

Dr. V. Shanta. File | Photo Credit: V. Ganesan

Dr.V. Shanta was an undisputed cancer crusader in the oncologic landscape for the past six decades. Born to a distinguished scientific family with two of her relatives, the immediate grand uncle Dr. C.V. Raman and uncle Dr. Chandrasekhar being noble laureates, she could have aspired to varied professions, but she passioned medicine.

The making of an ethic of care: Dr. V. Shanta’s journey

She completed her undergraduate, postgraduate courses from Madras Medical College in the 50s’ with Masters in Obstetrics & Gynecology. Following her education, instead of a lucrative practice, she chose a career and life to an ordeal against cancer, a grossly neglected disease at that time. The word “cancer” meant death in the public mind. This perception in the later years was changed by the works of Dr. Shanta , who came under the influence of legends Dr.S. Krishnamurthi and his mother, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a visionary dedicated to social service and reforms. The three legendary figures were instrumental to the birth of the Cancer Institute, a banyan tree of shelter and hope.

Dr. Shanta moved into the campus of the Cancer Institute in 1955 and made this her home until her last days in January 2021. She was simplistic all through her life and followed the Gandhian lifestyle. She was a multifaceted personality, a disciplinarian starting her work at 7 a.m., and was on call 24x7 for the care of patients, a la Florence Nightingale. She was a shelter of hope to those patients coming from far and wide at odd hours knocking on the gates of the Institute seeking care and support. As an educationalist, she introduced various cancer-related courses in oncology to train the next-gen.

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A strategist to parle with the government for waiving the costly custom duties on drugs/instruments/equipments to reduce the financial burden of patients, for the introduction of railway concession for cancer patients and their families to commute to the Institute frequently for treatment and follow-ups. On the whole, she was a visionary, along with Dr. Krishnamurthi, who transformed a 12-bed facility into a 650-bed hospital with other ancillaries to make it a comprehensive cancer center of national and international repute.

Her medical life over 60 years was dedicated to the mission of organizing care of cancer patients, the study of the disease, its prevention, and control. The very concept of oncology and multi-disciplinary approach to cancer care was pioneered and introduced by the Cancer Institute when none existed. She was responsible for the recognition and practice of Medical Oncology as a specialty and creating a separate Medical and Paediatric Oncology division at the Cancer Institute (WIA), the latter being the first in the country. The first super specialty course in surgical and medical oncology in India was introduced at the Institute in 1984. There were several more firsts to the credit of the Institute by her untiring efforts.

Not only in cancer treatments, she also had made significant contributions to cancer control in the state and country. One landmark achievement was the establishment of the first-ever Cancer Control Programme in India at Kanchipuram with support from NORAD & WHO in 1969. Dr. Shanta was designated the Principle Responsible Officer of the project by WHO. She was on the WHO Advisory Committee on cancer and was also the Convener of the State Advisory Board on Cancer. She served as the Chairman of the INDO-US Collaborative Group on Lymphoid Neoplasias (Indian Chapter), member of many ICMR Committees, member of the ICMR Task Force on Registries, and member of the Syndicate of the Anna University. To her credit, she was the President of the Indian Society of Oncology (88-90), President of the Asian & Pacific Federation of Organisations for cancer control (97-99), and President of the 15th Asian &Pacific Cancer Conference (1999).

The surgeon and the CM


Apart from the 32 awards from public and official organizations for her contribution to the advances in management and control of cancer, she was the recipient of the national awards Padma Shri in 1986, Padma Bhushan in 2006, and Padma Vibhushan in 2016. She was elected as the Hon. Member of the International Association of Cancer Registry (IARC) in 1997 for her contribution to developing registries in India. She was conferred the D.Sc (honoris causa) of the Shri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, for her outstanding contribution in the field of medicine in 1998 D.Sc (honoris causa) of The Tamil Nadu Dr.MGR Medical University for the year 2002.

She is also the recipient of the award instituted by the International Network for Cancer Treatment and Research, Brussels, of the Nazli-Gad-EI-Mawla Award for outstanding contribution to cancer control by an individual from a resource-poor country in 2002. She was the recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2005.

She lived true to the quote in Bhagavad Gita “Service above self is Service to God, Action is thy duty, and fruit is not thy concern”. Dr Shanta might not be with us today, but her mission and crusade against cancer will continue. She contributed much to public service and cancer care and was a true Bharat Ratna. The Government of India should take note of this exemplary work and honour her with the highest national award in the country posthumously. We pledge to follow in her footsteps to bring many more laurels to the Institute on her first death anniversary.

Men may come, and men may go, but some remain immortal by their deeds.

The author is Director (Emeritus), Cancer Institute, Adyar.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:37:53 am |