Interview
In this interview with TNM Dr Shantha speaks about her early life and her thoughts on healthcare today.

The Cancer Institute (WIA) in Adyar, Chennai, founded in the year 1954, was the first specialised centre for treating cancer in the whole of South India and second in the country. The institute was the brainchild of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman to graduate from medicine in India.

Dr V Shantha, its present Chairman, has played an extraordinary role in steering this mammoth of an organisation to where it stands today, inspiring generations of young doctors to be more compassionate and committed in their profession.

From being a resident doctor to becoming its Chairman, Dr Shantha’s journey is remarkable for several reasons and her contribution to the field of oncology is immeasurable. Even today, at 91, Dr Shantha is a busybody, delivering lectures and overseeing the functioning of the Cancer Institute, which is one of the oldest charitable centres of oncology in the country.

Earlier in June this year, Mahesh Memorial Paediatric Oncology Extension Wing, built by Mahesh Memorial Trust, was formally handed over to the Cancer Institute in Adyar. Speaking at the event, Dr Shantha said that unlike in the past, 65% of children suffering from different types of cancer are able to get back to a normal life after treatment and expressed her hope to increase this number in the near future. In this interview with TNM Dr Shantha speaks about her early life and her thoughts on healthcare today.

Early years

Coming from a family of Nobel laureates - Sir CV Raman was her maternal grandfather’s brother and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was her maternal uncle - Dr Shantha’s interests to pursue medicine might not have been a surprise to many. Yet, her journey was not without challenges.

Dr Shantha (extreme left) with cousins

Speaking about her early years, Dr Shantha confides that although her mother had to discontinue education at 6th form, her sisters (Dr Shantha’s aunts), went on to earn college degrees. “Unfortunately all of them married and settled down, which I found to be very drab and mundane. I didn’t want to be just a BA or an M Sc graduate,” she says.

Dr Shantha (second row from top, extreme left) in standard eight

At a time when women professionals were a rarity in the country, Dr Shantha decided to become a doctor. “I made up my mind in school to become a medical doctor. Everybody thought I would not make it. But I was very keen and I did take it up. And I think I did fairly well,” she adds.

Having done her schooling at what was then called the National Girls High School in Chennai, Dr Shantha did her pre-university course from Presidency College. “Those were the war years so people wanted everyone to stay together, so I stayed here in Chennai to continue my education. It was not an eventful time,” she says.

Dr Shantha (seated extreme right) with parents, brothers, and sisters

When Dr Shantha went on to pursue her MBBS degree from Madras Medical College, she was one among the 10 girls in a group of 100 male students to enrol for the medical course. Passing MBBS in 1949, she went on to complete her post graduation in 1954.

In 1950, she did her first house surgeon’s posting in the cancer ward of the Government General Hospital.

Dr Shantha (Second row, 5th from left) in final year MBBS

Is that what lead her to choose specialisation in cancer care? “That is a very difficult story. Normally, I would say it is destiny; I just do not know, would say it was something that just came,” she states.

She goes on to recall, “When I was in medical college, no one bothered about the cancer ward. One day, when I was a final year student, they said somebody for cancer had come, there was a new OP. And we, as girls, went to see what was happening. It was also the first time I interacted with Dr Krishnamurthi. I was very inspired. There was a very advanced case where the cancer had spread to the liver. Generally, our people used to say, nothing can be done. We were thunderstruck by the work Dr Krishnamurthi was doing.”

Cancer Institute 1954 thatched roof building 

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy

After a brief stint in-house surgency, she went on to do her post graduation. Upon completing it she joined the Cancer Institute in 1955 which had just opened. “After my post graduation, I was posted as a lecturer in Women and Children Hospital. But I resigned and later joined here (Cancer Institute). I should say that was my turning point.”

Initial days at the Cancer Institute

The Cancer Institute has many firsts to its credit. In 1956, it became the first center in India to establish a department of Nuclear Medical Oncology. A couple of years later, in 1958, combined modality approach for the treatment of advanced oral cancers was introduced for the first time by the institute, raising the cure rate from a dismal 19% to 58%.

In 1960, the first Pediatric Oncology Centre in the country was established at the institute.

Seen in photo: Chief Minister Kamarajar, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Dr Krishnamurthy (left) and Dr Shantha

Dr Shantha with Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamarajar, and Dr Krishnamurthy 

Between 1961 and 1962, the first rural field survey of cancer in India was carried out in Chengleput district of Tamil Nadu by the members of the institute.

In 1982, the first college of Oncological Sciences in India, offering super speciality degrees -M.Ch (Surgical Oncology), DM (Medical Oncology) and MD( Radiotherapy) -recognized by the Medical Council of India, was established by the institute.

When Dr Shantha had joined the Cancer Institute, the challenges in the field were too many. “The understanding people had of cancer was insufficient. The Minister for Health at the time said ‘why do you want a cancer hospital? People only die?’ We had to create awareness on cancer and make it known that there is available treatment. Scientifically and technically, there was very little knowledge on cancer, very little diagnostic equipment available,” says Dr Shantha.

In just a matter of 20 years, technology developed tremendously in the field of oncology but those at the institute had to pioneer through the period when people thought nothing can be done for cancer.

“As a voluntary institution, we had to show people that certain cancers are treatable if they come on time. We also had to enhance ourselves. Even today this challenge remains,” adds Dr Shantha.

The Present State of Medicine

Having witnessed a sea of change in the field of medicine, Dr Shantha admits that the scene today is entirely different from what it was earlier. “Technology has improved and science has provided a lot of quality change, improving the survival rate. Unfortunately, medicine is no longer a human issue. Medicine has become a business, an industry. The corporate ethos has changed the entire scenario. Cancer scenario has changed phenomenally. We’ve also improved in diagnosis, treatment and understanding. But what we are giving to the patient is not the same. Every patient does not get whatever is available. Service ethos is gone. There is also no political understanding at the top that cancer needs special attention,” she says. 

Dr Shantha remains to be one of the most influential doctors the country has seen. Having dedicated over 60 years of her life to cancer care and treatment, Dr Shantha has always emphasised on compassion and sympathy while treating patients. ‘My Journey - Memories’, a book compiled by Dr Shantha is a collection of memories from patients who were willing to share their experiences. In it she writes, “The objective of this publication is to pass on the message of a survivor to the public, to allow survivors and patients to provide answers to many doubts and fears about cancer and to dispel some of the myths.” 

Padma Bhushan 

Padma Shri

It is unlikely to come across someone like Dr Shantha, who has remained steadfast in her commitment towards cancer care. The recipient of several awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibushan and Ramon Magsaysay, her spirit to continue contributing remains strong even today. “So much to be done and so little has been done,” she adds with a smile before we leave. 

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