Dr. Ranjana Srivastava is an oncologist, Fulbright scholar, and award-winning author. She is also a columnist for The Guardian.
Having grown up in India and received a global education, she now practices in Australia. Her first book, Tell me the Truth, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize. Her book Dying for a Chat won the Human Rights Literature Award. She is the recipient of numerous honours including the Medal of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the field of doctor-patient communication.
Introduction: Tell us about yourself, your background and what you do currently
I am a medical oncologist, in other words, a cancer specialist, with a special interest in the care of the elderly with cancer. I work in the public hospital system in Melbourne, Australia, where I also mentor students and teach young doctors.
I am a regular columnist for The Guardian newspaper, where I write on the intersection of humanity with medicine. While medicine is my original passion, I have indulged my love of writing through my columns and several books. For a long time, I was a contributor to the Indian edition of The Week, and I loved my role for it allowed me to speak directly to Indian readers. To this day, I get a thrill seeing my books in Indian stores.
When I’m not seeing patients, I write, read and take care of my family.
My formative years were spent in Bhagalpur, Bihar, where my father worked as an academic. We were a family of modest means who lacked for nothing. I remember my childhood as content, sociable and loving. I was very fond of my school friends at Mount Carmel School, and still count on some close friendships resulting from that time. Now that I have my own children going through school, I look back at astonishment at how little my school had in terms of resources or extracurricular activities, which were really unheard-of terms. But what we had in abundance was the commitment and confidence of our teachers, who gave us their all. My small school has gone on to produce high achievers in every field of endeavour and it’s right that we still remember our teachers with affection and reverence. I am extremely proud of my Indian roots.
Tell us about any current projects or initiatives you wish to promote
My most recent book What It Takes to Be a Doctor was a finalist for the Royal Society of Arts Career Book Award. It is intended for high-school and college students aspiring to enter medicine. Over the course of my career, I have seen the extraordinary pressure on students to become a doctor, this being especially common on the Indian subcontinent, but so too in many other places. But I think that the public sees just one aspect of medicine, to do with job security, privilege and income. However, as the well-publicized excessively high rates of burnout, exhaustion, bullying and self-harm suggest, all that glitters is not gold. Medicine has a tedious, difficult and somewhat less wonderful side that anyone contemplating a career in it should know about before, not after the fact.
A career in medicine has brought me untold joy and my book shares some of the reasons why. But it’s right for aspiring students and their parents to know that this is not the case for everyone. Before committing decades of one’s life to medical training, it’s important to weigh up whether a career in medicine is right. This kind of due diligence is almost always missing from the lives of students but I think it has never been more important.
What has been your biggest challenge in achieving your success?
Gender bias and colour bias. I don’t lose sleep over it as much now because I have other priorities, but I’d be dishonest if I said I don’t think about it at all. But I also consider that my life has been dramatically different from my mother’s who was the only girl in her Indian college and who attended classes under the eye of a male chaperone hired to take her straight home afterwards. My mother received an academic degree that prevailing custom didn’t allow her to use, but she has been my outright champion in following my professional ambitions. I like to think that my daughter will see an even more enlightened world but that remains to be seen.
What has been your greatest achievement personally?
My three children. Holding their lives in my hand and having the capacity to shape at least some aspects of the people they become is at once a tremendous and magnificent responsibility and one that I love to rise to.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing?
I really wanted to be a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Services but the truth is, when I was growing up, we didn’t even have television coverage in Bihar, let alone contact with someone who had met or been a diplomat. I guess it’s true what they say: you can’t be what you can’t see! Thankfully, I have managed to combine my other great interest, in journalism, with being a doctor.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
A career in medicine has exposed me to many inspiring people from different walks of life. There is a long list of people who have impacted me in some way and made me a better human being. But if I had to choose one, I’d come back to my roots. My parents and brother have given me two important qualities, resilience and humanity. I am a work in progress!
What does the future hold for you?
My newest book, A Better Death: Conversations in the Art of Living and Dying Well comes out in June. In it, I ponder the meaning of a life well lived while recollecting the lives of some of my most memorable patients. I reflect on the values they lived by; the conversations that we must all have with our loved ones; and share advice about what we can do achieve a peaceful death and a calm aftermath for those left behind.
This was a difficult, but I hope, important book to write. I have learnt a lot from my patients, young and old, and those lessons deserve to be widely shared. We live in a frantic and self-obsessed world – I hope that my book will spark some important conversations in society about what it takes to live and die well.