If you can understand life, you can understand cancer: Dr V. Shantha

A winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service as well as the Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan, Dr V. Shantha of the Cancer Institute, Chennai, is such an extraordinary woman. The few things that strike you immediately when you meet her are her utter simplicity, passion for work, commitment to a cause, dedication and devotion to duty, and compassion and care. Years ago when I was writing a weekly column for the Indian Express, I had met her in her office at the Cancer Institute and I came out of that meeting inspired and humbled. After listening to her talk recently at the Public Relations Society of India on the occasion of International Women’s Day, when she said the confidence that nothing was impossible to achieve must come from within, that women must wake up from their slumber, with confidence in their capability and strength, that when you had commitment and purpose, you needn’t be disturbed by circumstances or obstacles, I was inspired and humbled all over again. That led me to meet her again in the same office. I invited her to talk at the Press Institute of India. She agreed, but said she’d only speak about healthcare with specific reference to cancer.

So, yesterday, when she arrived at the Press Institute to talk, it was for me, certainly a moment to cherish. Born in a distinguished family of scientists, Shantha dreamt of becoming a doctor ever since she was a small girl; her uncle and granduncle were Nobel Laureates. She acquired MBBS, DG and MD (Obstetrics and Gynaecology) degrees between 1949 and 1955. In April 1955 she joined the Cancer Institute, set up in 1954 by the Women’s India Association Cancer Relief Fund as its resident medical officer, in preference to the assistant surgeon’s post in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Madras. With Dr Krishnamurthy she played a crucial role in developing the institute from a cottage hospital of 12 beds to what is today a comprehensive institution of international stature.

One of the first things Dr Santha said was that there was really no need to be afraid of cancer – it was just like any other disease. Sixty-five per cent of cancers were curable, Dr Shantha said, especially if detected early. Advanced stages of cancer had no cure and the best was palliative care. However, overall, there is no doubt that developments in science have blunted the power of a disease whose name most people even today take with bated breath. While it is breast and cervical cancer for women, lung cancer is the top killer among men, overtaking oral and other forms of cancer. Dr Shantha does not believe in miracles; her faith in medical science is as strong as ever. All the improvements in cancer cure were a result of it, she said and pointed out how the disease could now be diagnosed even at the molecular stage (without any sort of growth/tumour or physical appearance as such).

Dr Shantha was critical as ever of the tobacco lobby and recalled how once she refused to have a chain smoker as a member of a cancer-prevention body. “Keep tobacco sponsors away from sports,” was her clarion call. She was also not for having any person who smoked as a teacher in a school. “If he smokes how can he be an example to children,” she wondered.

There were many questions, including a few from students of the Asian College of Journalism. Others shared thoughts and concerns. One visitor told the doctor how a family was shattered after a woman in it tested positive for colon and lung cancer. There was nobody in the house who smoked. That was when Dr Shantha mentioned about some cancers taking the genetic route; it could even skip a generation or two. Another talked about how his mother, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer 26 years ago, continued to lead a normal life. Contrary to what most people believe, chemotherapy and radiation did not cause pain, Dr Shantha said; the pain was due to cancer, not the treatment. “If you understand life, you understand cancer,” she said, indicating that the disease in many ways is complex and beyond the control of the human being, just as everyday life is. She ended just as she had begun, on a positive note. Adopt a positive outlook at all times, she emphasised. Somebody then whispered into my ear: “If you are mentally strong, you win more than half the battle.”

Pictures how Dr Shantha speaking, answering questions, and students from te Asian College of Journalism who turned up in considerable number and took a great interest in the programme...


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