As the Institute’s associate director, Shanta set up India’s first comprehensive pediatric cancer clinic, conducted the country’s first major cancer survey, and developed its first program for the early detection of cancer in rural areas.
As director from 1980, Shanta strove to make the Institute a world-class research center with institutional partners in Europe, North America, and Japan and state-of-the-art laboratory and imaging equipment.
She worked tirelessly to raise donations, grants, and government subsidies and trained hundreds of village-health nurses to screen rural women for cervical abnormalities. In 2000, she opened India’s first hereditary cancer clinic.
Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation board of trustees recognizes “her leadership of Chennai’s Cancer Institute (WIA) as a center of excellence and compassion for the study and treatment of cancer in India.”
Cancer is on the rise in India. Especially rampant are cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and lungs in men—all related to tobacco use—and cancers of the breast and cervix in women. Fully 20 percent of cervical cancer in the world occurs in India, where poor rural women are particularly prone. Despite this, specialized research and treatment of these cancers in India are relatively recent phenomena. Dr. V. Shanta, executive chair of Chennai’s Cancer Institute (WIA), is a pioneer in both.
V. Shanta was born to an illustrious family and raised in a world of books, ideas, and high achievement. Resisting the conventional path for women, she studied medicine at Madras Medical College and came under the spell of Muthulakshmi Reddy, a social reformer and India’s first woman medical graduate. In 1954, under Dr. Reddy’s leadership, the Women’s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund founded the Cancer Institute (WIA) in Madras, now Chennai. Drawn to Reddy’s vision, young Dr. Shanta spurned a more lucrative post to join the Institute. She has never left.
The fledgling institute had only twelve beds and two doctors—Shanta herself and Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, the founding director and Reddy’s son. As the Institute’s associate director, Shanta set up India’s first comprehensive pediatric cancer clinic, conducted the country’s first major cancer survey, and developed its first program for the early detection of cancer in rural areas. She became a passionate advocate of cancer prevention and opened a tobacco cessation clinic. And she conducted India’s first successful trials of combination therapy, leading to a dramatic breakthrough in the control and cure of oral cancer.
Simultaneously, Shanta conducted groundbreaking research on oral, cervical, and breast cancer and pediatric leukemia, publishing the results in international journals and establishing the Institute as India’s first Regional Cancer Research and Treatment Center in 1975. In 1984, the Institute added a postgraduate college where Shanta proceeded to train cancer specialists, more than 150 of whom now practice throughout the subcontinent.
As director from 1980, Shanta strove to make the Institute a world-class research center with institutional partners in Europe, North America, and Japan and state-of-the-art laboratory and imaging equipment. She worked tirelessly to raise donations, grants, and government subsidies and trained hundreds of village-health nurses to screen rural women for cervical abnormalities. In 2000, she opened India’s first hereditary cancer clinic.
Today, the Cancer Institute (WIA) comprises a 428-bed hospital and research center plus the Dr. Muthulakshmi College of Oncologic Sciences, with advanced specialties in medical, surgical, and radiation oncology. In an era when specialized medical care in India has become highly commercialized, Dr. Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, “Service to all.” Its services are free or subsidized for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients; travel allowances make regular treatments accessible to the poor. And through a volunteer program called Sanctuary, the Institute provides hope-giving emotional support and counseling to patients and their families and to cancer-afflicted children. There are thousands who might say, as leukemia victim Delli Rao, a wageworker, has said, “I owe my life to Dr. Shanta.”
Seventy-eight-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery, and is still on call twenty-four hours a day. It disturbs her that it is so hard to raise funds for the Institute when, she says, “we seem to have enough money to construct pilgrim shelters and temples in almost every street of the city.” Even so, she cautions young people against cynicism. Perhaps reflecting on her own life, she tells them: “Learn to accept that you are good and that from you a lot of good can happen.”
In electing V. Shanta to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes her leadership of Chennai’s Cancer Institute (WIA) as a center of excellence and compassion for the study and treatment of cancer in India.
The honorable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, brothers and sisters of the Philippines.
It was late evening on July 5th when my phone rang and a colleague handed me the hand phone, “call from the Philippines”, he said. I had been to Manila earlier, the last time in 2001, as the outgoing President of the Asia-Pacific Federation of Organizations for Cancer Control. I took the call, wondering as to who in the Philippine Cancer Society it could be! Imagine my total bewilderment when the caller identified herself as “Madam Carmencita Abella, President of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation” and congratulated me on being chosen for this world-famous award for 2005. I could only keep on repeating, “I am honored, I am privileged!” She told me that the information was confidential, but I could not help sharing it immediately with Dr. Krishnamurthi, my old-time colleague. His immediate reaction was “Wonderful! It will greatly strengthen our cause; it will help us raise more funds”.
His reaction was typical of the Cancer Institute’s ethos from its very inception, fifty-one years ago. We have never regarded ourselves as individuals, only as members of a mission of service, transcending geography, race and religion. Honors, successes and failures concern us only to the extent that they are likely to affect our mission.
The Cancer Institute, in our perception, is not confined to the four walls of a building or a few acres of land. It reaches out to wherever a cancer patient or family needs our help.
Our greatest reward is to bring a smile on the face of suffering, cure where possible, relief always.
To us, the award is far more than a personal distinction. Its spiritual value and moral strength exceed all else.
God bless you all.
Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
Tranquility & peace unto all beings.
In the 1920s, anyone stricken with cancer in India was at grave risk. One could be misdiagnosed by doctors as having another, less serious ailment. Or even if one were correctly diagnosed, one would be considered “good as dead” by doctors and one’s own relatives, or be regarded as having a disease of the aged “for whom a dose of morphine was all that was needed to help one on the way to eternity.”
Health and development planners gave little importance to the disease. Until the need was pointed out to them, they did not include cancer under “Health” in India’s First Five-Year Plan (1951–56).
Today, the situation has changed. Doctors in the country are aware of the problem. And they know that not only is the disease curable, it is preventable. Today, cancer is a major component of the National Health Plan; anti-cancer drugs are classified as “life-saving” and therefore exempt from customs duty; and all cancer patients can travel free by train or bus to their hospitals or pay only half the rate if they travel by plane. Today, people are told that they should not fear cancer but fear delay in seeking medical attention for it.
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