Dr. Viswanathan Shanta, MD was an internationally renowned pioneering Indian oncologist and Chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. Having seen death so often, in so many forms, she was determined to help thousands of people fight it. Cancer being a notoriously expensive disease, she initiated one of the first attempts of affordable, quality evidence-based cancer treatments for lower-income-groups in India.
Despite the strides made in cancer treatment, lack of information and wrong perception made people fear it. Cancer was largely seen as fatal or ordained by fate. She vociferously advocated its early detection using genetic profiling, today considered indispensable and reiterated the need for tobacco control. Her mantra was equitable treatment for all and to treat patients with compassion as individual human beings, not as a disease state, developing protocols beyond treatment to holistic care. Punctual to a fault, her gentle demeanour instantly put all at ease. If bad news had to be broken, she couched it sensitively.
Unmarried, considering marriage a hindrance to her, work was worship to her. A picture of austerity, the 94-year-old lived on the top floor of the institute available round the clock. Blessed with sharp administrative skills; funding, infrastructure up gradation, and awareness generation activities, occupied her time wholly. Shanta was born in Mylapore, Chennai, Tamil Nadu in a distinguished family that included two Nobel Laureate physicists – CV Raman and Chandrasekhar Raman. She completed MBBS at the Madras Medical College in 1949 and MD in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1955.
She joined as a voluntary worker, the fledgling Cancer Institute, established in 1954 by the Women’s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund under the leadership of medical pioneer, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, and her son Dr. Krishnamurthi, who became her mentors. Training in oncology at Toronto, Canada, and advanced cancer care in the United Kingdom, she returned and joined the Institute as a Resident Medical Officer on 13 April 1955, remaining there all her life. The early days at the institute were hard but the excitement of creating something new and working in a collaborative spirit of inquiry kept her going. One day, out of the blue, a stranger from a neighbouring State walked in and contributed funds toward an additional ward of 50 beds. The Institute which started with just 12 beds soon became a comprehensive cancer centre, comprising 650 beds, providing quality affordable care, and world-class facilities.
Her sustained advocacy led the Medical Council of India to finally recognise medical oncology as a speciality. She got duty exemption for cancer drugs, free travel for cancer patients in trains and buses, screening of women for cervical cancer, making cancer a notifiable disease in Tamil Nadu, declaration of anti-cancer drugs as life-saving and removal of licence and custom duty on imported chemotherapy drugs. She was the 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, overseeing the opening of the first hereditary cancer clinic in India and also conducting many major cancer surveys in India. All this battling public apathy! Shanta received several national and international awards, including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay awards and the Mother Theresa award.
She was the President of Indian Society of Oncology (1988-1990), served the WHO Advisory Committee until 2005, a National Academy of Medical Sciences (India) Fellow, and convener of the State Advisory Board on Cancer. She published numerous papers, contributed chapters in oncology books, and participated in many international and national conferences. She passed away in Chennai and was cremated with full police honours. She wished her ashes be sprinkled all over the Institute.