Updated: January 20, 2021 5:27:59 am
Some days ago, Dr V Shanta was upset with a former student when the latter broke to her that she was stepping down from active practice after a long and illustrious career as an oncologist. “She was really annoyed with me. She asked me how could I quit when at her age, she was still examining patients,”said Dr P P Bapsy, former HoD of Medical Oncology at Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology, Bengaluru.
“It was only after I told her that I would continue to be engaged in supportive work for an NGO that works for women with cancer that she was no longer so annoyed,” added Dr Bapsy, who completed her doctorate in medical oncology under Shanta’s guidance.
Early Tuesday, Dr Shanta, chairperson of The Cancer Institute at Adyar in Chennai, and doyen of oncology, who focused her expertise over half a century in trying to make cancer care affordable in the country, died of a heart attack. She was 93.
Born in 1927 in a family of achievers — both her maternal uncle S Chandrasekhar and maternal grandfather C V Raman are Nobel laureates — Shanta graduated in medicine in 1949 from Madras Medical College, later specialising in Gynaecology and Obstetrics.
She joined Adyar Cancer Institute in 1955, a year after it was founded by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, one of the first women graduates of medicine in India and a legislator. There, Shanta, along with Dr Reddy’s son Dr S Krishnamurthi, devoted their time and energies to working on cancer care as the hospital and research centre grew from being a four-bed unit to one with over 400 beds and patients from all over the country. It is said that in the early years of the institute, Shanta and Krishnamurthi were the only doctors on call. The institute also served to train several oncologists at a time when cancer care and research were at an infancy in the country.
As news of Dr Shanta’s death came in, tributes poured in from all over the country, from political leaders to her students and fellow oncologists.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narenda Modi tweeted, “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. I recall my visit to the Institute in 2018. Saddened by Dr. V Shanta’s demise. Om Shanti.”
Dr C S Pramesh, Director, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, told The Indian Express that he vividly recalled the time he spent with Dr Shanta a decade ago when the two were members of a committee set up by the Centre to address the concerns of people living in and around the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu.
Marvelling at the energy and dynamism that Dr Shanta possessed, despite being the oldest member in the committee, Dr Pramesh said, “We had five to six meetings and had to do long hours of travel. But Dr Shanta did not mind travelling 100 km by road, touring the plant and understanding people’s concerns.”
“What she achieved over the last several decades is remarkable. Not only has she created one of the best cancer centres but also instilled the need to always keep the patient as priority for every doctor,” Dr Pramesh said, adding that her passing away was a huge loss to the fraternity of oncologists and the patient community in the country.
He recalled his interaction with Dr Shanta in 2012, when they were together involved in setting up the National Cancer Grid, a network of major cancer centres and research institutes across the country.
“Not many thought it was worthwhile doing it, though it was an effort under the Government of India to create uniform standards of care. But she was one of the 17 individuals who worked on creating the grid and was a true champion of providing uniform standards of care, regardless of people’s ability to pay. This was a reflection of her philosophy that cancer care should not be dependent on whether the patient is rich or poor,” Dr Pramesh recalled.
Dr D Raghunadharao, founder director of Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital & Research Centre, Visakhapatnam, said, “She was a phenomenal teacher, apart from being extraordinarily good at starting specialties. Starting medical and paediatric oncology was an idea that she generated – in fact we in India adopted medical oncology much before the rest of the world adopted it as a specialty.”
Talking of Shanta’s abiding commitment to taking cancer care to those who couldn’t afford it, Dr Raghunadharao said, “It really did not make a difference to her whether the patient could pay for treatment. The institute looked after the needs of the patient and their families. A volunteer force has been working at the hospital and each volunteer is allotted a patient who gets lifetime care.”
Dr A Nanda Kumar, former head of the National Cancer Registry Programme, said, “At Adyar, she developed one of the best follow-up systems for cancer patients. Even today, they take seven addresses of each patient to ensure successful follow-up of each patient, many of them from across the country.”
For her work, Dr Shantha was recognised with the Padma Vibhushan (2016), Padma Bhushan (2006), Padma Shri (1986), and the Magsaysay Award (2005).
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