The 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
CITATION for V. Shanta
Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Ceremonies
31 August 2005, Manila, Philippines
Cancer is on the rise in India. Especially rampant are cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and lungs in menall related to tobacco useand cancers of the breast and cervix in women. Fully 20 percent of cervical cancer in the world occurs in India, where poor rural women are particularly prone. Despite this, specialized research and treatment of these cancers in India are relatively recent phenomena. Dr. V. Shanta, executive chair of Chennais Cancer Institute (WIA), is a pioneer in both.
V. Shanta was born to an illustrious family and raised in a world of books, ideas, and high achievement. Resisting the conventional path for women, she studied medicine at Madras Medical College and came under the spell of Muthulakshmi Reddy, a social reformer and Indias first woman medical graduate. In 1954, under Dr. Reddys leadership, the Womens Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund founded the Cancer Institute (WIA) in Madras, now Chennai. Drawn to Reddys vision, young Dr. Shanta spurned a more lucrative post to join the Institute. She has never left.
The fledgling institute had only twelve beds and two doctorsShanta herself and Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, the founding director and Reddys son. As the Institutes associate director, Shanta set up Indias first comprehensive pediatric cancer clinic, conducted the countrys first major cancer survey, and developed its first program for the early detection of cancer in rural areas. She became a passionate advocate of cancer prevention and opened a tobacco cessation clinic. And she conducted Indias first successful trials of combination therapy, leading to a dramatic breakthrough in the control and cure of oral cancer.
Simultaneously, Shanta conducted groundbreaking research on oral, cervical, and breast cancer and pediatric leukemia, publishing the results in international journals and establishing the Institute as Indias first Regional Cancer Research and Treatment Center in 1975. In 1984, the Institute added a postgraduate college where Shanta proceeded to train cancer specialists, more than 150 of whom now practice throughout the subcontinent.
As director from 1980, Shanta strove to make the Institute a world-class research center with institutional partners in Europe, North America, and Japan and state-of-the-art laboratory and imaging equipment. She worked tirelessly to raise donations, grants, and government subsidies and trained hundreds of village-health nurses to screen rural women for cervical abnormalities. In 2000, she opened Indias first hereditary cancer clinic.
Today, the Cancer Institute (WIA) comprises a 428-bed hospital and research center plus the Dr. Muthulakshmi College of Oncologic Sciences, with advanced specialties in medical, surgical, and radiation oncology. In an era when specialized medical care in India has become highly commercialized, Dr. Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, "Service to all." Its services are free or subsidized for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients; travel allowances make regular treatments accessible to the poor. And through a volunteer program called Sanctuary, the Institute provides hope-giving emotional support and counseling to patients and their families and to cancer-afflicted children. There are thousands who might say, as leukemia victim Delli Rao, a wageworker, has said, "I owe my life to Dr. Shanta."
Seventy-eight-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery, and is still on call twenty-four hours a day. It disturbs her that it is so hard to raise funds for the Institute when, she says, "we seem to have enough money to construct pilgrim shelters and temples in almost every street of the city." Even so, she cautions young people against cynicism. Perhaps reflecting on her own life, she tells them: "Learn to accept that you are good and that from you a lot of good can happen."
In electing V. Shanta to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes her leadership of Chennais Cancer Institute (WIA) as a center of excellence and compassion for the study and treatment of cancer in India.
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