Never Say Die: A Tribute to Dr. V. Shanta

A Tribute on Republic Day to Builders of our Institutions of Excellence

The story of Dr. V. Shanta (1927-2021), is the story of The Cancer Institute, Adyar. For her, the institute and its mission were everything. She admitted that work was her only interest,  that she was not social, had few friends, and did not keep in touch with those she had! So tied up was her life to the Institute that when she felt unwell a few days before her death, she said to those around her: “If I die, sprinkle my ashes all over the institute. I don’t want to leave this hospital,”

She joined the Institute in 1955, just a year after it was founded by another remarkable lady, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr. Shanta served there till she passed away last week at the age of 93, still seeing patients and managing the institute as Chairperson. Dr. Shanta, who was related to two of India’s Noble Laurates (Dr. CV Raman and Dr. S Chandrashekar), was a Magsaysay Award recipient (2005) and a Padma Vibhushan (2015).

Her Magsaysay citation mentions: “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’. Its services are free or subsidised for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients […] 87-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery and is still on call twenty-four hours a day.”

Adyar Cancer Institute was only the second comprehensive cancer centre in India. It pioneered many areas of cancer care, becoming the first in the country to set up a Nuclear Medical Oncology Department; to set up a Medical Physics Department; to set up a Pediatric Oncology Department; to start a Medical Oncology Unit; carry out the country’s first rural cancer survey; create the first super-specialty course in oncology in India; set up the first cancer registry..and many, many more.

While it stays at the cutting edge of medical developments related to cancer, the core of the Institute is its Mission to provide quality care for every patient, irrespective of their ability to pay. In fact, of the 535 beds in the hospital, only 40% are fully-paid beds; 20% patients pay a nominal amount; 40% beds are free, where not only do patients not pay for treatment, but boarding and lodging is free too–living up to its Mission ‘To provide state of art to any cancer patient irrespective of his or her economic status.’

This was the lifework of Dr. Shanta, along with Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, son of the founder Dr. Muthulakshmi.

May the legacy of Dr. Muthulakshmi and Dr. Shanta continue to live on, and may their dream of a world free of suffering and pain come true!


In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, one of the country’s early Medical Physicists, who had the privilege of professional interactions with Dr. Shanta.

Father Valles, whom Mamata wrote about a few weeks ago in ‘The Mathematical Priest’ has been bestowed posthumously with the Padma Shri. A fitting tribute indeed.

Bravely Battling the Big C

I requested my friend who has resolutely conquered her cancer to share her experiences, and she generously agreed, though it was not easy for her to re-visit this part of her life. And what I realized is that you need 4Cs to battle the Big C: Courage of the person concerned, Caring Family, Compassionate Doctor and a network of Concerned Friends.

I share her story in first person and have the conviction that she has left it behind forever.


It’s hard to go down memory lane to the fateful day when I got to know that I had the dreaded C disease. It was so hard to accept that diagnosis and to be able to actually say the word: CANCER!


‘Oh my God ! it can’t be happening to me…’ was obviously the first thought.

It took Dr Sarin less than five minutes and a physical examination to deliver the verdict which sealed my fate. But the journey to get to this point was not an easy one. I had been going from pillar to post, from doctor to doctor to doctor in my country of residence for a full year, and nobody so much as even suspected anything this drastic. I used to repeatedly get a ulcer on my left nipple which was not amenable to any treatment –I tried allopathy, homeopathy, ayurveda…you name it! I visited all streams of experts…GP, Dermatologist, Gynaecologist. Finally, as luck would have it, I came across a surgeon who suggested a biopsy, and on getting the result, he suspected something and asked me to go to India immediately.

A friend of mine had taken me for this biopsy. She immediately got into action and contacted her cousin in Delhi who knew a thing or two about doctors there. Though I have my whole family in Delhi and I belong to Delhi, here was a friend in this alien country who helped me to not only find an ACE DOCTOR, but took the pains to ensure I got to see the doctor—from arranging the appointment to everything.. all without my knowledge. She contacted my sisters and gave them the doctor’s contacts and my appointment time.

So Jan 23, 2017..can I ever forget this date !! I met Dr Sarin with 10 of my family members. There were tears and tears and tears all around as Dr Sarin gave her verdict. But I have to say, if ever there was an angel in a doctor’s guise, it was Dr Sarin. She tried to soften the blow as much as possible. Convinced my family that this was the easiest cancer to handle and that it was completely curable. We latched on to every single word she uttered and put our complete faith on her.

My Paget’s disease needed to be dealt with immediately. Straight on, we dived into a whirlpool of tests and more tests! Mercifully Jan 26th was a National holiday, so I got some respite to catch my breath! My surgery was planned for Jan 27th morning. God was surely holding my hand! I say so because I didn’t get time to think about what had hit me, everything was moving so fast (and trust me that’s the best way to go about it!). On Friday morning, I went into the OT. I was constantly praying to my Sai to hold my hand through this ordeal even as I saw doctors and nurses preparing for the operation. Dr Sarin came to me in the pre-surgery room, talked to me and gave me courage. There I saw my Sai Baba on her locket and suddenly I felt that He would work through Dr.Sarin’s hands and cut away my cancer. I was ready for the surgery. Everything went off well ..I was sent home the next day.

While all looked well, the tissues were sent for a detailed exam. On the third day when I went back for check-up, I was shocked to learn that a gene mutation had been found and I needed hormone therapy (Herceptin) for a year to completely take care of my problem. BUT to give that, they had to give me 6 cycles of chemotherapy. OMG! Once again I was in Dr Sarin’s room flooding it with tears. I could not handle the thought of chemotherapy. Apart from everything else, I could not accept the thought of losing hair and becoming bald. And also the fact that I would have to stay back for 4 1/2 months at least, to finish six rounds of the three-weekly chemo sessions.

Then started the second phase of my treatment journey. We had left Delhi about 10 years before this incident. I have two sisters and a brother-in-law living in Delhi and a hoard of school and college friends whom I had been close to. By God’s grace they all came forward and were there for me. They were like my suraksha chakra. I can never thank them enough or do anything to repay their love and support and courage which helped me go through this trial.

For after this, it was never-ending trips to Apollo every Monday and Thursday. I decided to look upon these as my outings! Remember in chemo we have to be confined to a room in the most sanitized atmosphere possible ! Oh God ! how seriously we took US-based sons would send us Dettol wipes in huge dibbas and Chlorex to clean the floor. My husband was quite depressed through it all…he felt sad and guilty as he could not be there with me. But he had a job to keep and cancer is an expensive affair !

My sons would put a positive spin on everything. They’d say ‘Mummy, when will you ever get so much attention in your life? Just take it in your stride and go through it bravely. We have to come out a champ from this ordeal. Sai Baba is with you, providing all support. You have to do your bit by hanging in there.’

And that was true. I had the best doctors treating me. Dr Sarin is nothing less than God for me. Her healing touch was enough to lift my spirits every time I met her. With every passing chemo, she would say, ‘chalo one more done, ab to katam hone wala hai…’, and I would feel happy that we were crawling towards the end, slowly but surely. May God give her long, blessed life! My medical oncologist Dr Manish Singhal, took care of all the side effects so beautifully that I had minimum discomfort (that the minimum is also difficult to handle is another matter!).

Then again, the hardest part was to lose my hair…however much you may be prepare for it, it does make you cry!!!! I lost mine after the second chemo, but again my children had already sent me wigs, so I didn’t have to move around bald. Dr Sarin, Pooja, Dr Parag and my whole family would always pull down my scarf and urge me to have the confidence to move around like that!

I had my whole family rallying around me. My nutrition was being well taken care of..Nariyal pani first thing in the morning, healthy palak parantha for breakfast, anar mid morning etc etc. The whole meal plan was  ‘cooked fresh, fresh, fresh’.

All in all my sisters were a great source of strength for me during my difficult period.The two who were in Delhi physically present with me through it all and with whom I took turns to stay with for months on end and my sister from afar praying for me and cheering me up always!

My sister from Dubai too gave me immense strength through it all.As soon as she heard about my diagnosis,she took the next flight and was by my side for the surgery. Then all through my chemotherapy days she kept sending me beautiful scarves and prayer threads and what have you! Twice more she flew down to spend time with me.She is an excellent cook n as we know during chemo the taste buds really go for a toss .She would prepare yakhni and other delicious stuff that would appeal to my palett.It was a delight to have her around whenever she could make it ! Its because of her prayers and best wishes that I stand strong today !

I used to sleep a lot, something that came naturally to me after every chemo. In each cycle, in the first week, I only slept.  The second week onwards, felt a bit stronger. The third week was the golden week when was all ok. My relatives made a ritual of entertaining me on the day before the next chemo. In the safe period, we would go out for a movie followed by dinner. So in this way, I saw six movies and ate in six plush restaurants to mark my six chemos. Perks of being a patient!!

I felt God all around me, as if He had sent these people to lovingly look after me, and all I had to do was to be a little brave and keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.  I thanked God a million times every day for giving me these people to help me through my most difficult times.

I tried my best not to let myself be dragged down by negative thoughts. I used to always go to the temple on the Apollo premises before going in for chemo. It gave me immense strength. A quirky habit I developed was that I wanted a room facing the temple only. That had become my good omen. After two chemos, they knew i wouldn’t take a room on the other side!

After the six chemos were over, I was finally given the go ahead to go back to my home and country to continue with Herceptin for the rest of the year, and then come back for a check-up. In Feb 2018, my last Herceptin was administered. I flew to India end of March and got my check-up done by Dr Manish Singhal, Dr Parag and my dearest Dr Ramesh Sarin, and got the ALL CLEAR signal.

The relief in my heart is difficult to express in words. When Dr Sarin told me I could have my chemo port removed, I was as unbelieving as I was the day I was told that I needed one!

Thank you, Apollo Hospital!

I love my doctors and I love my family and friends, who with the grace of God, brought me to this day where I have left cancer behind….hopefully forever!