In June 2007, Dr Ravi Kannan, a surgeon at the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, decided to pack his bags and move to Assam's Silchar at a time when the state was in the headlines for insurgency, bomb blasts, and natural calamities.
Why? On multiple visits to Assam over a few years, Dr Kannan realised that underprivileged people were dying of cancer without even knowing what was happening to them.
In August this year, Dr Kannan, a 59-year-old surgical oncologist, became one of the four winners of the 2023 Ramon Magsaysay Award and the only one from India.
On Thursday, 31 August, Dr Kannan sat down with FIT for a conversation after winning what is often called the “Nobel Prize of Asia.”
From Chennai To Silchar: Empathy Takes You Places
Back in the 2000s, when Dr Kannan was a surgeon in Chennai and his wife, Seeta, was working with the United States India Educational Project, the couple visited Assam multiple times as a guest surgeon and a motivator.
They had been responding to calls from the Cachar Cancer Society. Dr Kannan says,
"Most of the people here were unaware of treatment facilities. We wanted to give them assurance that cancer is curable. We didn’t want anyone to die in indignity due to cancer."
Kalyan Chakraborty, who was the administrative head of Cachar Cancer Hospital for 16 years, tells FIT that he had met Dr Kannan during a seminar in 2002.
“We laid the foundation stone of our society-run hospital in 1994 but without specialists, it was impossible to run the hospital. We requested Dr Kannan to visit our hospital once and he agreed. Between 2004 and 2007, he came several times and we requested him to shift here permanently."Kalyan Chakraborty to FIT
After three years of visiting Assam frequently, Dr Kannan decided to leave his job and move to Assam as the Director of the Cachar Cancer Hospital, only so that he could help underprivileged patients avail cancer treatment.
But the move was not an easy decision. Dr Kannan tells FIT,
“There were talks about these issues [political situation in Assam] at home but what me and Seeta saw was the poor condition of health here.”
Myths, Improper Lifestyle & Many Firsts in Assam
When Dr Kannan first moved to Assam, the region was laden with many popular myths about cancer.
He recalls, "People used to say that something was wrong with the air or water in Assam. We convinced them that these thoughts were baseless and the actual reason was the wrong lifestyle."
Dr Kannan tells FIT that people in the northeast would consume tobacco, areca nuts, and alcohol in excessive amounts. They'd exercise less and often rely on meals that were not "proper."
The bigger problem, he says, was that people weren't aware about the severity of cancer.
Often, after getting diagnosed with cancer, they would feel helpless and decide to hide it. "We have been fighting with this mindset for more than one and a half decade," he says.
It took a while to get things going. Initially, many patients would visit the hospital but hardly any would come for follow-ups.
“It was tough to convince the patients to come for treatment but the more difficult side was to bring them back for follow-ups. Cancer treatment is a long process and the patients have to visit the hospital on a regular basis.”Dr Ravi Kannan
But in 2012, the hospital saw its first microvascular surgery on a cancer patient, which was the first in northeast too.
Now, with help from the state government, they have also been able to start a Linac facility.
Cancer Awareness Through Satellite Clinics
In his attempt to make cancer treatment accessible for people, Dr Kannan and his team also started satellite clinics in Karimganj, Hailakandi, and the Dima Hasao district.
He tells FIT,
"Treatment should be available in every locality and not far from the patients. So when the patients are not coming to the hospital, we are taking the hospital to them."
With these satellite clinics, the follow-up percentage of patients, which was once below 50 percent, has now crossed 90 percent.
These clinics also spread awareness about the ill effects of unhealthy lifestyle choices and how they can cause not just cancer, but also diseases like diabetes, heart attacks, hypertension, etc.
'Honoured To Receive This Award'
Dr Kannan says he feels honoured to have been bestowed with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. But, he says it's not his alone, and is a win for the entire hospital.
“We all are working as a team and everyone is contributing equally to make this project a success. Not only those who are working here but the people who are supporting from outside, they are also the winners.”
Dr Kannan was also honoured with the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest civilian award, for his contribution towards the health sector in 2020.
His mother, Indumati Kannan, beaming with pride, says, "My husband and I always wanted to make our son a doctor because with this profession he can serve common people. He was always a humble child and dedicated to his work. He is not over excited with the recognition, rather he is hopeful that with this he can help more people."
Dr Kannan's wife, Seeta, agrees. She says when they decided to move to Assam in 2007, they didn't even know the language. And now, they receive love and care in the state from all corners. "We are happy serving so many people through this cancer research centre," says she.
"Keeping ourselves healthy is a national duty and it is as good a job as protecting the country at the borders, because only a healthy nation can progress."Dr Ravi Kannan