No story about the Cancer Institute, Adyar , located on a sprawling 9 acres campus, next to IIT Madras, in Chennai, can be complete without a meeting with the living legend of the Institute, the Magsaysay Award winner, Padma Bhushan Dr. V Shantha. Infact the Institute and Dr Shantha have become synonymous with each other over the years, because of her tremendous contribution to the phenomenal growth of the Institute against several odds.
I met her at her small office in the old campus of the Institute in Gandhi Nagar. A diminutive lady who looks a little frail at 85, but still displays the same enthusiasm and energy when she talks about her favourite ‘temple’. During the course of the interview she admits that she does not believe in going to temples as she considers the Cancer Institute, where she has served for 60 long years, as her temple. I responded that for lakhs of cancer patients who come with hopes in their hearts to the hospital she and her team of dedicated doctors are like ‘Gods’, for which she smiled. She also mentioned that she is never tired of talking about the institute and its growth story, the trials and tribulations that it has gone through before reaching the pre-eminent position it has reached today, in Cancer care.
Cancer Institute (WIA) was founded in 1952 as a voluntary charitable institute by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, first Indian woman to graduate in medicine, who was also the first woman to become a member and subsequently the Vice President of Madras Legislative Assembly. Loss of her young sister to cancer affected her deeply which propelled her to institute a Cancer Relief Fund in 1949.
It took her several years to translate her dream of having a speciality hospital for Cancer to serve the growing number of poor patients. With relentless pursuit she managed to get a narrow strip of two acre land abetting the Buckingham Canal in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. With the support of the Women’s India Association (WIA) of which she was a President for 30 long years. she started the first Cancer Hospital in South India at Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. The foundation stone of the hospital was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal in Nehru in 1952 and inaugurated on 18th June,1954 by the then Finance Minster of the Government of India Shri C.D.Deshmukh. The facility with just 12 beds in a small hut was run right from the inception by Dr. S Krishnamoorthy(son of Dr.Muthulaxmi who passed away in 2010), and Dr. V Shantha (both of whom were earlier working with the Government General Hospital) doubling themselves as doctors and assistants in the initial years.
Since the death of Dr. Reddy in July 1968 both fought against all odds to keep the facility going,
According to Dr.Shantha right from the beginning it has been a running battle between supportive and non supportive governments. . Since the hospital is totally dependent on donations , in the initial years getting money to run the Institute was itself a stupendous task. But thanks to the generosity of both Corporate and individual donors and the dedicated team, the hospital has made tremendous strides and is celebrating its Diamond Jubilee this year, which was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu on 12 th June,2013.
The hospital which had a single building with minimal diagnostic and therapeutic facilities has now become the Comprehensive Care Centre for Cancer, comprising of a 450 bed hospital, a very active Research division, Dr. Muthulakshmi College of Oncologic Sciences and a Division of Preventive Oncology.
The patients, mostly poor from across the country, come with fear in their minds but hope in their hearts. Every day the institute registers over 410 cases out of which nearly 80% are poor, who are given totally free or highly subsidized treatment by the hospital.
The hospital treated over 1,40,000 patients in 2012, a phenomenal jump of over 60% from a figure of 85000 patients it treated in 2000, reflecting the growing incident of the dreaded disease in the country.
Today`s Research, Tomorrow`s Treatment
Dr . Shantha was proud to talk about the Research Centre in the hospital which is recognized as a Centre of Excellence by the Department of Science and Technology of Government of India and comprises Molecular Oncology, Electron Microscopy, Immuno Hematology and a Tumor bank including Pathology. Intense research is also going on in the Institue for finding a vaccine for prevention of cancer.
Another area which the department is researching is the ‘gene profiling`’ of the disease, literally creating a horoscope of the disease for each patient.
Dispelling the concept of miracles in cancer cure, Dr.Shantha said that all improvements in this area were a result of modern science, which today can provide ‘targeted treatment` for different types of cancers, resulting in a much higher success rate. Today the disease can be diagnosed even at the molecular stage (without any sort of growth / tumor or physical appearance, as such). If diagnosed early 65% of the Cancer cases can be treated and the patients can lead a normal life. It is no more a Killer disease as it was in the early years, because of the tremendous strides made in researching the area of Oncology.
Education & Training
The institute introduced the concept of Oncology as a Super Speciality as early as 1982 and started the first Super Speciality College in Oncology – Dr. Muthulaxmi College of Oncologic Sciences in 1984. The Institute affiliated to Dr. MGR Medical University and Madras University offers courses in Surgical Oncology, Medical Oncology and Radiation Oncology. Every year 18 students covering the three specialized fields pass out of the college. The college also offers para professional training covering a wide variety of support services.
“I am happy to tell you that thanks to the efforts of the Institute in the area of education and professional training in cancer care, today cancer Hospitals across the country have doctors and support staff who have been trained at the Institute and who are all doing well.” Dr.Shantha referred to one Dr. Ravi Kumar, who moved out of the Institute to start a new Cancer Speciality Hospital in Silchar, Assam to provide free or subsidized cancer care to poorer patients there with support and guidance from Cancer Institute , Adyar.
A visit to the Pediatric Oncology unit, located in the old hospital premises, will move anybody. This is the place where thousands of poor children from the villages of South India come for treatment of cancer – mostly cancer of lymphoblastic Leukemia. From a dismal 20% survival rate earlier, today the patients being treated at the State of the Art Mahesh Memorial Pediatric ward, have a cure rate of 60%. According to Dr. Shantha this can be increased if patients come in the earlier stages of the disease
The hospital was the first to establish a Pediatric Oncology unit in India as early as 1960. In 2009 a Comprehensive Pediatric Oncology centre including long term survivor clinic was established in the premises of Mahesh Memorial Pediatric Ward, thanks to a generous donation from friends of Mahesh who himself was a patient at the Institute and survived the disease for over 12 years with excellent care from the doctors at the institute.
Prevention is better than Cure
At every forum and at every meeting she addresses Dr Shantha is never tired of emphasizing the importance of prevention of cancer, through education of the people. According to her, “Lung Cancer is the top killer among men mainly due to tobacco related habit, whereas among women breast and cervix cancer are most common. Both these cancers can be detected early through simple check -ups. Apart from regular mammograms, it will be a good idea for women to physically check up for any lumps in their breasts regularly and also consult gynecologists if they find any unusual discharge between two periods”.
The department of Preventive Oncology established by the hospital is a mission of service which reaches out to every nook corner of the state through seminars, lectures, screening camps conducted by specially trained Village Health Nurses (VHN) and multipurpose workers in the early detection of cancer of the cervix, oral cavity and female breast.
The tobacco cell in the institute is aggressively involved in the anti-tobacco programme with numerous cessation classes in schools and colleges.
Demographic Cancer Registries
When I asked Dr.Shantha why patients are asked very detailed questions regarding not only symptoms but also a lot of personal and family details before they are registered as patients at the Cancer institute. she said, “ it is to help compile the Demographic registry of the disease maintained by the Hospital”.
The Madras Metropolitan Town Registry is one of the oldest demographic registry in the country established in 1984 that provides data on cancer incidence, mortality and long term survival on all treated cases. The institute is the only centre that provides life time follow up of patients.
In 2012 the Institute launched a joint effort with the Dept. of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Tamilnadu , to start the largest population based Cancer Registry in the world covering 72 million people of Tamilnadu. The information collected through such efforts is of immense help for researchers doing research on the subject. This initiative was one of the faciilities inaugurated by the Chief minister at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Leader in Diagnostic & Treatment facilities
According to Dr. Shantha, Cancer Institute is always the first to buy any latest equipment related to diagnostic and treatment of Cancer because of its ability to take quick decisions and with help from supportive Corporate and Individual donors who are willing to help the hospital, whatever may be the cost. The Institue was the first
a. to introduce super voltage era in Asia with the installation of Cobalt Therapy unit in 1956.
b. to install an Indigenously built Caesium Tele Curie therapy unit in 1962
c. have an indigenously designed Therapy Simulator in 1968
d. to Introduce the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy in 1978 and at present the only place where the facility is available. In the same year it also introduced the first blood compound unit, using the blood cell separator in the supportive treatment of high dose chemotherapy and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy.
e. Installed the first intraoperative Radio therapy (IORT) and Brachy therapy (CITRON) between 1995-98
f. Acceleraor Clinac 2300 C (a) the first conformational therapy unit installed in 1999
g. First Rapid Arc Accelerator installed in 2009
The State of the Art Accelarator for Radio therapy costing Rs. 12 crores, with a grant of Rs 6 crores from Government of India was also inaugurated by the Chief Minister as a part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Transforming quality of Cancer care
The hospital was also very fortunate to have Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) the top IT company in the country, providing a state of the art Hospital Management System `MED Mantra,` and also maintaining the same totally free. Operational since 2010, Med Mantra has helped the institute automate all administrative, Clinical and Nursing, Patient admission and transfer and all imaging functions. All the information pertaining to a patient is securely stored and accessible to an authorized doctor at the click of a mouse. This information system, unique to Cancer Institute, enhances the quality of care for all patients besides providing easy access of data for research.
I had the opportunity to see the system in operation when my wife was admitted for treatment at the Institute. Whether it was the specialist medical oncologist or the duty doctor ,they could get complete details of the diagnosis, and progress of the treatment at the click of a button which ensured that every doctor attending on my wife was fully aware of her case.
Expounding on the philosophy of the hospital Dr.Shantha said, “the institute believes in offering the same kind of care to both paying and non paying patients. Patient care is foremost. Returns are secondary. If the institute can save a patient with its expertise, it will do so . It will never turn him back because he cannot afford the treatment. Affordable and equitable treatment for all is the mantra at the cancer institute”.
At the end of the interview, I posed a question to Dr. Shantha regarding the future of the institute. When I asked her “After Dr. Shantha, who?” she smiled and said, “the current Director of the Institute Dr. T G Sagar, who himself has been with the institute for over 40 years and his team of dedicated doctors and staff , I am sure, will carry the vision of the founder, in the years to come!”
Having had a first hand experience of dealing with the hospital as an attender of a patient I have no doubt that the Cancer Institute will continue to serve the poor and needy with compassion and commitment in the future with or without Dr.Shantha.