In the world of cancer specialists in the country, Ravi Kannan is a name that evokes deep respect. It’s not every day that you hear of a doctor and wife who leave behind the hustle and bustle of life in Chennai, to work with cancer patients on the outskirts of Silchar town, in the Barak valley of Assam.

And for that very reason, it does not come as a surprise that Kannan is one of four awardees of the 65th Ramon Magsaysay Award (2023), Asia’s highest honour.

A “Hero for Holistic Healthcare”, Kannan is being recognised for “his profession’s highest ideals of public service, his combination of skill, commitment, and compassion in pushing the boundaries of people-centered, pro-poor health care and cancer care, and for having built, without expectation of reward, a beacon of hope for millions in the Indian state of Assam, thus setting a shining example for all,” said the announcement from the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, on Thursday.

The international recognition will put the spotlight on the work done by the doctor and his team in taking cancer care to those who cannot afford it. Kannan is Director at the Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Silchar (Assam).

‘Award for the team’

But, the surgical oncologist, wears his awards lightly.

A Padma Shri awardee, Kannan had then said, that awards and recognition went to the team and community that helped “bring it all together”.

On the Magsaysay award too, he echoes the same thought. “Just think about it, I have 450 colleagues, there is the society that actually built the hospital in the beginning, then people in the community who support us in the region, in India, outside the country - many of them are unknown…and they support a cause that they probably will never see. All this effort brings about transformation and so any recognition rightfully belongs to this human endeavour,” Kannan told businessline.

Kannan had previously headed the Surgical Oncology department at the prestigious Adyar Cancer Institute (WIA, Chennai). Incidentally, WIA’s iconic chairperson, the late V. Shanta, is also a Magsaysay award recepient for Public Service (2005).

The proverbial turning point in Kannan’s (and wife Seetha’s) life came, following a trip to the Silchar hospital - over 15 years ago.

Satellite clinics

Today his team works to take cancer care still closer to people by setting up small satellite clinics, possibly in a tea garden or an abandoned school. The plan is for two or three more hospitals in Assam and neighbouring States, may be even across the border in Bangladesh, he said, and these would be linked to several smaller clinics.

The smaller day-care centres will help cancer patients, including daily-wagers, take their chemotherapy, if needed, and get back to their life and work without having to relocate themselves to access treatment. The centres would also handle preventive and early detection, besides palliative care, he said.

Kannan schooled at the Kendriya Vidyalaya at the Air Force Station, Tambaram and graduated with an MBBS from the Kilpauk Medical College, Chennai. He later earned a master of surgery degree in surgical oncology from Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi

However, he did not give a timeline on this - as “the progress is so slow, it does not happen with the speed it happens in your mind,” says Kannan, of the expansion plans that were dependant on more resources being available.

Over the years, Kannan and team have tailored solutions to address problems including housing, employment and wages - when a person with limited income is diagnosed with cancer and has to abandon work to access treatment. Some initiatives included providing lodging and food for patients, providing ad hoc employment and some wages, teaching skills to patients and care givers, to encourage patients to complete their treatment.

So will the international recognition inspire young doctors to go outside their comfortzone? “Many people want to do things …but there are compulsions in life - kids, loans, parents… that prevent them from doing what their mind and heart tells them to do. I was just fortunate that everybody supported, my family, parents supported, I found amazing colleagues here ..everything worked out,” he says, in his characteristic self-effacing style.

The Magsaysay award will be presented on November 11, 2023, in Manila, Philippines.