Cancer Research, Statistics, and Treatment

: 2021  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 354--355

Dr. V. Shanta (March 11, 1927–January 19, 2021)

Venkatraman Radhakrishnan 
 Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Institute (W.I.A), Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Correspondence Address:
Venkatraman Radhakrishnan
Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Institute (W.I.A), Adyar, Chennai, Tamil Nadu

How to cite this article:
Radhakrishnan V. Dr. V. Shanta (March 11, 1927–January 19, 2021).Cancer Res Stat Treat 2021;4:354-355

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Radhakrishnan V. Dr. V. Shanta (March 11, 1927–January 19, 2021). Cancer Res Stat Treat [serial online] 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 4 ];4:354-355
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Dr. Shanta was born into an illustrious family in Chennai. Her uncles, Dr. C. V. Raman and Dr. Chandrasekhar, were Nobel laureates in Physics. Dr. Shanta was studious and excelled in academics and music. She found a purpose early on in her life. Unlike her peers, she was not keen on following the usual path of college education followed by marriage and settling down as a homemaker. She once said, “It was not a life that appealed to me. I wanted to be independent, do something different, and not get lost in the crowd.”

She acquired her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degree from the prestigious Madras Medical College (MMC) in 1949. She was one of the few female graduates in her class. Following this, she obtained a Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1952 and Doctor of Medicine in Obstetrics and Gynecology degree from MMC in 1955. She received training in Radiation Oncology at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center in Toronto, Canada, in 1957 and advanced training in Medical Oncology from the Royal Marsden Hospital in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first female MBBS graduate in India and the first female legislator, envisioned the Cancer Institute (W.I.A) to provide care to patients with cancer at the time when cancer was considered a death sentence and very few hospitals managed such patients. She sent her son, the late Dr. Krishnamurthy, to the United Kingdom and the United States of America for training in Surgical Oncology. Dr. Krishnamurthy returned from his training abroad and established the Cancer Institute (W.I.A) on the banks of the Buckingham Canal in Chennai on June 18, 1954.

Dr. Shanta's interactions with Dr. Krishnamurthy while working at the Government General Hospital in Chennai influenced her to make a career move from obstetrics and gynecology to oncology. Dr. Shanta joined the Cancer Institute (W.I.A) on April 13, 1955, and continued her services at the institute for the rest of her life. Dr. Krishnamurthy, her mentor, was the only doctor available at that time. Together, they transformed the Cancer Institute (W.I.A) from a 12-bedded cottage hospital to a 500-bedded regional cancer center over the next six decades, fulfilling the dreams of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr. Shanta, during the initial years of her service at the institute, played diverse roles, including that of a medical officer, surgeon, radiation oncologist, scrub nurse, pathologist, blood bank officer, laboratory technician, housekeeping, and ward nurse, because of the lack of staff.

I would like to take the liberty of calling Dr. Shanta the “Mother of Oncology” in India. She brought cancer care to the mainstream and influenced policymakers to devote time and allocate finances and resources toward cancer prevention and treatment. Her path was filled with administrative roadblocks, but she overcame all of them to give dignity to the patients with cancer. She played an instrumental role in the exemption of anticancer drugs from customs duty and making free travel concessions available for patients with cancer and their caregivers in the public transport system. She understood the importance of collecting data on the incidence of cancers in order to plan future interventions. She, therefore, established a hospital-based cancer registry at the Cancer Institute in 1954. The Madras Metropolitan Population-Based Cancer Registry in 1984 was instrumental in making cancer a notifiable disease in Tamil Nadu and establishing the Tamil Nadu Cancer Registry Project, which is one of the largest population-based cancer registries in the world.

Dr. Shanta believed in Dr. Krishnamurthy's vision that “Today's research is tomorrow's cure.” She established the first collaborative network for cancer research in India with the National Cancer Institute in the United States of America. This network designed the multicenter protocol, MCP-841, for treating childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The MCP-841 was a giant leap toward improving the outcomes in ALL in India and laid the foundation for collaboration between major cancer centers.

“They shall always have a tomorrow.” These words echo in my mind when I think of our late Chairman Dr. V. Shanta. She referred to children with cancer and emphasized how it is incumbent upon the oncology community to improve their outcomes through high-quality treatment and research. This was her inspiration to start the first Pediatric Oncology unit in India in 1960, a time when even Medical Oncology did not exist.

Dr. V. Shanta was felicitated with various awards during her lifetime, including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award (considered the Nobel Prize of the East), National Cancer Grid Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Avvaiyar award by the Tamil Nadu state. She dedicated all her awards to the Cancer Institute staff and patients.

She contributed immensely to higher education in oncology in India. She persuaded the Medical Council of India (MCI) to offer higher educational degrees such as the Doctorate of Medicine (DM) in Medical Oncology and Master of Chirurgiae (M Ch) in Surgical Oncology. Her dream came true in 1984 when MCI, after a decade, gave recognition to the first superspecialty course in Medical and Surgical Oncology in India and the College of Oncological Sciences was established at the Cancer Institute (W.I.A).

The Cancer Institute (W.I.A) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization providing free or subsidized high-quality treatment to most of the patients. The cost of cancer care has increased over the years. However, under her leadership, the institute continued to provide the best possible care to its patients.

She fought hard to break the stigma associated with cancer. When the managing director of a public sector bank equated corruption with cancer, she was distraught. She wrote to the managing director, “We do not want the word, 'cancer' to be associated with guilt, hopelessness or dread, and definitely not with shame. So do not try to find parallels where none exist.”

Dr. V. Shanta was a leader in the field of innovation in health care. For instance, she familiarized oncologists with the concepts of multidisciplinary care and tumor boards, established the first cobalt-60 and linear accelerator machines in India, and started the first screening program for cancer and the first limb salvage program for bone tumors in India.

Dr. Shanta has left this world, but her legacy is eternal. She was the epitome of selfless service to the patients and community; we must strive to live up to her ideals. She continued to work till the last day of her life because she believed that “When the sick approach the gates of the Institute, weak in body and spirit and full of fear, there is only one response; you have to become a part of them.”

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.