Dr V. Shanta, a renowned oncologist and chairperson of the Chennai-based Adyar Cancer Institute, has passed away at the age of 93.
The Hindu reported that Shanta was admitted to hospital following complaints of chest pains. “Sources at the Cancer Institute said she had a complex block that could not be rectified,” the report said. She passed away at approximately 3.35 a.m. IST on Tuesday and her body has been repatriated to the former premises of the Cancer Institute.
The Hindu further reported that “Dr Shanta was active until her hospitalisation, colleagues said, even though she had been feeling under the weather for a couple of days. Even during the pandemic, she was concerned about the new challenges to healthcare that was brought on by the lockdown.” In her own words to The Hindu, she said “the Cancer Institute has survived crises and come through stronger. Through all the difficult times, we never lost sight of our vision of top quality service to all, particularly the economically weaker sections.”
Tributes pour in
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among the many to have paid tribute to the late doctor. “Dr V Shanta will be remembered for her outstanding efforts to ensure top quality cancer care,” he tweeted. “The Cancer Institute at Adyar, Chennai is at the forefront of serving the poor and downtrodden. I recall my visit to the Institute in 2018. Saddened by Dr. V Shanta’s demise. Om Shanti.”
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan also paid tribute to the late oncologist. “With the sad demise of renowned oncologist Dr V Shanta, we have lost a great humanitarian,” he wrote.” As Chairwoman of the Cancer Institute at Adyar, Chennai, she championed the cause of providing health to those without wealth. My deepest condolences to her family.”
V. Shanta: A life in medical service
Dr V. Shanta, born March 17, 1927 in the Mylapore neighbourhood of Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai, aspired to be a doctor from a young age. She graduated from Madras Medical College in 1949 and obtained her M.D. in obstetrics and gynaecology 1955.
Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy served as an inspiration to Shanta. In 1954, Reddy established the Adyar Cancer Institute which Shanta subsequently joined as resident medical officer in April 1955. As The Hindustan Times noted, “Dr Shanta played an important role in the development of the Cancer Institute from a cottage hospital of twelve beds to a major comprehensive cancer centre of national and international stature.”
The rising burden of cancer in India
The provision of cancer care to the most vulnerable was a major tenet of Dr V. Shanta’s career – and has underpinned the tributes paid to her by many. As reported by Health Issues India just last year, many people drop out of ostensibly free cancer care due to accompanying logistical challenges of long journeys and associated costs of having to travel and take time off from work.
This is largely attributable to inequalities between urban and rural India, compounded by the poor state of India’s cancer care infrastructure – a problem which assumes heightened importance as the country’s cancer burden rises and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic deters many from seeking diagnostics and treatment, adding to delays in care which can prove fatal. As noted by Health Issues India in 2019
“To cope with demand, the country will need 7,300 oncologists compared to around 1,250 at present. Its oncologist deficit sits alongside a shortage of facilities. Just 62 dedicated cancer care centres service the entirety of the country’s cancer patients. As such, it is unsurprising that as many as 83 percent of India’s cancer patients are failed on their treatment.”
Lack of access to publicly-funded cancer care marks a significant public health challenge at a time when cancer will affect one in ten Indians in their lifetime – and one in fifteen will die from cancer.
Ensuring accessibility of cancer through the Institute motivated Dr V. Shanta. As The Logical Indian wrote in 2016 at the time Dr Shanta received the Padma Vibhushan – India’s second-highest civilian honour – “she has been working tirelessly to ensure world class facilities and quality care for her patients. Despite facing many hurdles like financial crunch and difficulty in getting donations, to fund subsided [sic] treatments for the poor, she never looked back.
“Today, the Institute has 423 beds, of which 297 are free. Generally, 66 percent of them get free or subsidised treatment. She is also credited for developing India’s first programme for early detection of cancer in rural areas. She has trained hundreds of village nurses to screen rural women for cervical cancer.” It noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) identified the Institute as the best cancer centre in the country.
The Padma Vibhushan is not Dr Shanta’s sole honour – far from it. She was also the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Padma Shri, and Padma Bhushan, among others. The citation for her Ramon Magsaysay Award read, in part, “in an era when specialised medical care in India has become highly commercialised, Dr Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, ‘Service to all.’”
Dr Shanta is to receive police honours as she is laid to rest, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has announced.