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One Woman Army

Cover Story December 2017 Health and Wellness

One Woman Army

For an oncologist, it is also important to take care of the patient and the family, in addition to treating the disease, seeking help from a professional counsellor if necessary.

Dr V Shanta

Dr V Shanta, the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute and one of the top five oncologists in India, has often been lauded as a ‘one woman army’ for her contribution to affordable cancer care in India. In her interview with us, she spoke at length about her professional journey of over six decades, the importance of team work, memorable moments in her career and the future of oncology in India. Dr Shanta emphasises the fact that all her achievements have been a result of teamwork. She lists out the victories achieved by her team in the last 62 years due to their patient-centric approach.

  • Introduction of the super voltage era in India and Asia (including Japan and Australia) in 1957
  • Travel concession (railway and bus) for cancer patients in1959 Setting up of the first cancer control centre in India (in Kanchipuram) in 1968
  • Setting up of the first super specialty college of oncology science in 1984
  • Classification of anti-cancer drugs in the life-saving category Not one to rest on her laurels, Dr V Shanta continues to look ahead; she believes that “what has been achieved is infinitesimal compared to what is yet to be done.

” During the long and often arduous journey, Dr V Shanta has drawn inspiration from many, including Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Abdul Kalam and her mentor, Dr S Krishnamurthi. The trust and faith that the patients have in the doctors at the institute have helped her abide by words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘in any work you do, give your best. It is its own reward.’ At the beginning of her career, a speech made by Dr Krishnamurthi at the Honorary Medical Officers Conference, made a lasting impression on her. His words emphasised some core values of the medical profession: “No body of men can survive as an organisation if the motive underlying is one of personal gain. An organisation can grow and strengthen only if the principle that directs its policy is the well being of the large community which lives around it. We should act without fear and the source of our strength should be the nobility of the cause we advocate and should not derive from the politics of a group or the influence of an individual.”

As destiny would have it, Dr Shanta’s first posting as a house surgeon was in the cancer unit of Government General Hospital, where Dr Krishnamurthi was working to modernise the existing cancer unit. She watched Dr Krishnnamurthi’s struggle to give the best care to each patient and keep the VIP culture out of the cancer wards. Once, under pressure from hospital administration to give preference to a VIP patient, he declined saying, “Sir, I have my order from God.” On the other hand, she also witnessed the overall mismanagement of cancer treatment at the hospital and resolved to play her part in finding solutions to cancer care in the country. Dr Shanta reinforces the role of empathy and communication in building and sustaining the doctor-patient relationship. She believes that it is a sacred bond, one of trust, hope and confidentiality. She also believes that physicians should expand their role to maintaining and promoting health and not just tend to the sick or the dying.

She is emphatic that for an oncologist it is also important to take care of the patient and the family, in addition to treating the disease and seeking help from a professional counsellor if necessary. “Communication must be clear, with regard to giving details about the illness and treatment. An oncologist’s aim should be to cure wherever possible, and where cure is not possible, offer relief, care, and comfort, always,” she says. Dr Shanta feels that it is important to dispel the notion that cancer is ‘a dreadful disease’ since the negative connotations around the disease can have adverse effects on its survivors. She gives the example of a patient who first approached her in 1987 after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia.

“Padmaja was 22, a bright student, a Research Fellow in the physics department at IIT-Madras. With scientific management, she achieved complete remission and remained so. She continued her studies and took her doctorate,” she says. “Five years later, she applied for a Commonwealth Fellowship and was duly selected but the Medical Board rejected her on health grounds. That was the perception of cancer then in India. Since I could not convince the local office, I wrote to Dr Ray Powles, head of the department of leukaemia at the Royal Marsden Hospital, requesting his intervention. After a few consultations with the UK Commonwealth authorities, Dr Padmaja’s fellowship was cleared. She went to the UK and completed her fellowship. She is now in the US, happily married with children, and is busy with academic work.”

The journey of last six decades, in the field of oncology, has been tremendous. Due to proliferation of scientific knowledge and technological advances, today, two-third of cancers are curable. However, at present, only one-third are being cured because of lack of access to treatment. Dr Shanta looks forward to the day when every individual in the community who needs cancer care is able to access it. She looks at sustainability as a major challenge and is “looking for various options to retain the existing ethos without impinging on our aspiration for growth.” But then, challenges and failures have never undeterred her; she holds on to the tenets of the Bhagvad Gita: ‘Action is thy duty, fruit is not thy concern’.

Apart from music and reading, Dr Shanta has few interests outside of her work. She echoes the words of Dr Abdul Kalam to explain her singular devotion to the cause of cancer care in India, “the organization you work for, the nation of which you are a part, is above the individual-above any personal interests. There is so much to do, that there will be hardly any time to think of anything else.”


Dr V Shanta

  • Works at the Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai
  • Winner of Magsaysay Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan
  • Member of the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Health

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