Dr V. Shanta (1927-2021), doyen of cancer care, passes away

Published : January 19, 2021 13:36 IST

Dr V. Shanta (1927-2021), chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. (file photo) Photo: K Pichumani / The Hindu

Dr V. Shanta (1927-2021), who redefined the concept of quality and affordable cancer care in the country, and brought relief and cure to millions of poor and underprivileged in India, died early on January 19. She was 93.

The chairperson of the Adyar Cancer Institute, Dr Shanta was active till her last day, and was deeply concerned over the growing needs of and dwindling financial contributions to the institution. She was rushed to a hospital after she complained of chest pain at about 9 p.m. on January 18. She passed away at about 4 a.m. this morning.

Dr Shanta and her equally motivated team kept the institute running during the COVID-19 pandemic, as hundreds of poor depended on the care it provided. According to her colleagues, she had often expressed her views and anxieties brought on by the lockdown, and wanted the hospital to step up help in any way it could.

Born on March 11, 1927, in Chennai, Dr Shanta completed her MBBS from the Madras Medical College. After finishing her M.D., she decided to involve herself in the treatment and research on cancer, and joined the Cancer Institute, built by Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, in 1955. This was nothing short of a revolution at that time – women doctors were few and almost all were absorbed into government service. This meant a steady pay, decent working hours and other perks. Instead, Dr Shanta got paid a meagre honorarium, very long hours and zero perks at the Institute.

In the next few decades, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s son, Dr S. Krishnamurthy, and Dr Shanta, expanded the scope and reach of the Hospital. Dr Shanta considered Dr Krishnamurthy her mentor and guide. Her work brought her several awards – including the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan and the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Said former Tamil Nadu Health Secretary (who later rose to be posted as a secretary in the Government of India), R. Poornalingam: “We started the screening programme in women for cervical cancer in Tamil Nadu because she pursued the matter. I am talking about 1995. We initially began the programme in two districts.” Poornalingam, who was also Special Officer in the Chennai Corporation, added, “The name Adyar Cancer Institute should actually be read as Shanta Cancer Care Institute. That was the extent of her involvement and inputs to the institution.”

Realising the importance of the Cancer Hospital, both the Central and State governments came forth to give the institution a deficit grant (or a gap grant) –one meant to bridge the gap caused by the shortfall of finances. But this was not always easy to access because governments routinely delayed payments. “In 1995, the government took a call that we should not delay these kinds of funding because, in the end, it affects the care given by an institution,” said Poornalingam. This process of not holding back the funds became the norm in the State government for the next two decades.

Dr. V. Maitreyan, an oncologist who worked with Dr Shanta at the Institute from 1982 to 1996 before he went on to join politics, said: “It was my great fortune [to work with her]. Hers was a life dedicated to cancer patients. Nothing else was more important to her. The quality of her research and publications will stay forever…. She had absolute confidence in me and sent me for so many conferences and even to the U.S. for two years.”