It was a different world when Dr V. Shanta joined the newly founded Adyar Cancer Institute as a medical resident in 1954. The institute had two doctors including herself, and about 12 beds.
The Madras – indeed the India she was a part of – had many other things on its mind, including staggering poverty, deadly communicable diseases, regional tensions with neighbours, illiteracy and, of course, a newfound independence. Perhaps it was this optimism fuelling her generation – or perhaps it was the fact that her family had a strong academic pedigree, ranging from C.V. Raman to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar – that propelled Dr Shanta to pursue a career in a little-known field called medical oncology and cancer research. Either way, we are thankful.
Dr Shanta passed away on January 19, Tuesday, of a heart attack, at the age of 93.
As chairperson of the Institute, Dr Shanta jumpstarted affordable cancer care in India. Cancer is a notoriously expensive disease, and Dr Shanta is credited with initiating one of the first attempts of affordable, evidence-based cancer treatments to lower-income-groups in India. Her efforts to treat these groups with standard care continues to this day. In a 2011 interview, she noted that “Cancer Institute treats 60% of its patients free of cost or at heavily subsidised rates”.
Her career as an oncologist was one of many firsts – first to initiate a paediatric oncology clinic, first to establish a cancer research and treatment centre in India, first to offer postgraduate in oncology course, oversaw the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and – as I was surprised to learn – conducted one of the first major cancer surveys in India.
In addition to her role as an oncologist on call, Dr Shanta was a researcher at heart. She conducted one of the first combination chemotherapy trials in India, comparing the effects of radiation and bleomycin (a chemo drug) in the treatment of oral cancer. In her later career, her research focused largely on cancer epidemiology in India – with studies ranging from risk factors for stomach cancer to childhood cancers, to the definitive report on the dangers of tobacco chewing linked to the risk of oral and oesophageal cancers in Indian men. She also advocated for the early detection of cancer using genetic profiling as the most important tool in cancer treatment – something that is now being considered indispensable.
Dr Shanta served as the president of Indian Society of Oncology (1988-1990) and served the WHO Advisory Committee until 2005. For her work in cancer treatment advocacy and research, she was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan in 2006, the Padma Vibhushan in 2016 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award. She was also a National Academy of Medical Sciences (India) Fellow.
Scientists, oncologists and researchers from India owe a great deal of gratitude to Dr Shanta’s groundbreaking life as a cancer researcher and an attending physician. We are indebted. Her work continues through the rest of us.
Sri Krishna is a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute, USA, and tweets at @tellkrish. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health or the US Government.