When I joined OhioHealth in July 2014, I asked God, ‘How can I best serve my patients?” The answer came in the form of my own breast cancer diagnosis.
After being a breast surgeon for eight months, I faced my own breast cancer diagnosis on March 27, 2015 – the result of a routine screening mammogram. My initial reaction was what you would expect from anyone getting the same news: denial, followed by anger (why me? Why now? As I was starting my career, and I wanted to do a lot of things with my life), then came bargaining, depression and finally acceptance of my diagnosis.
I have seen both sides of the experience, as a breast cancer surgeon and a breast cancer patient, and have gained unique insight and perspective into what it’s like to face breast cancer.
“You have breast cancer” are the three words no one wants to hear but unfortunately, around 250,000 women hear those same words every year.
I underwent a total of 5 surgeries in one year. It was the most challenging year of my life. Throughout this experience, I learned a lot of things as it relates to my patients and me, and my learning is unique in a sense that I learned things that have helped me become a better daughter, wife, mother, friend and a physician, specifically breast cancer surgeon.
What I learned
Cancer creates a sense of urgency:
I had my mammogram/biopsy on March 26, 2015, and we found out the results in exactly 24 hours. I feel privileged to have discovered my diagnosis so quickly, but it typically takes five days for patients to receive that diagnosis. Patients have a sense of urgency; it is life threatening to them, even though we know that it is not a threat to life. I now call patients as soon as I am aware of the diagnosis— usually in the evenings, nights or weekends.
Patients experience shock:
Patients are usually in shock, denial and ask questions repeatedly. I now know that patients retain only 10-20% of what you tell them in the office. I answer questions and expect to repeat myself a lot.
Have a non-judgemental attitude:
I have to remind myself of this daily. I am very blessed with my home family, work family, job, a roof over my head, food on the table, health insurance, etc., a lot of people don’t have that, they have other stressors on top of cancer. I try to have a “non-judgemental attitude” as I am not walking in their shoes.
Listen with empathy:
I have learned that is important to listen to patients and be empathetic and try to meet them where they are in their life and offer help.
My patients, my inspiration:
So many of my patients inspire me with their positive attitude, courage, beauty, and grace. Adversity is not what happens to you but how you react and what you make of it. Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved”.
Kindness makes a difference:
showing and receiving kindness was extremely medicinal for me. The phone calls, the text messages, people dropping in to see me. I remember even the little things, like the older gentleman at the hospital wheeling me down the hall after my surgery as I was getting ready to go home, the conversation we had was very nice; he made me laugh—it is the human connection – that was meaningful.
I feel that when I see a patient here, they are at their worst state in their life, every one has different coping mechanisms. I took away that I am to be kind to my patients at all times.
Get rid of things/people that don’t serve you well:
I have learned that life is short and there is no time for toxic and negative people.
Let go of “control”:
As a surgeon, this was the biggest struggle for me, as I am a control freak and wanted everything to go my way; but healing happened once I realized that I needed to let go of the control and surrender. I also had to teach myself to accept help from family and friends.
Take time to heal:
It is important to be patient and give yourself time to heal. People stop asking how you are doing once you finish with treatment; but you still feel uncertain about the future, the chance of recurrence, and the effects of the medications you have to take. It is a blessing that I can tell patients how it feels to face a cancer diagnosis; but on the other hand, I never have days where I am not thinking of cancer since that is woven into what I do for a living.
When you face your mortality for the first time, it takes time to feel safe and adjust to your new reality. It has taken me almost two years to not have cancer on my mind all the time.
Cherish family and friends/live in the present:
Cancer affects the whole family. I cherish my family and friends more than ever! I don’t take people for granted. I try to live in the ‘present’ and not wait until that special day to wear my nice outfit or shoes. It is now more important to me to have that quality time with my kids, husband, family and friends and make great memories.
Take care of myself:
For the first time in my life, I have made myself a priority and take care of myself. I work out daily, do yoga and meditation, eat healthy food and treat my body as a temple. I want to set a good example for my patients and practice what I preach.
Cancer is a blessing: I know I did not feel this way when I was first diagnosed. But having gone through the diagnosis and now 2 years later, I not only have greater compassion and empathy for my patients, but I also have had several blessings in the form of the people I’ve met and events I have been able to take part in. Cancer has allowed me to gain strength, endurance, tenacity and perseverance. I hope my story and life will inspire other people.
A letter to cancer
The following is a letter I wrote to cancer, as part of a campaign with Susan G. Komen Columbus:
I have a bone to pick with you; you came into my life after I just finished ten years of training to be a breast surgeon and I was waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel but instead felt like I got hit by a train. To be honest, I never liked you in the first place, and that was the reason I became a breast surgeon – to help others who are affected by this disease.
Up until my diagnosis of cancer, I felt like I had control of my life- I did whatever I wanted to do, became a surgeon in spite of all the challenges against me. Because of you, I cried every day for the first few months, I felt like an uninvited stranger took over my life, and I lost control. My life changed forever, and each night I went to bed, I would pray that this was a nightmare and not really happening in my real life. You have not only affected my life but also countless other women who were minding their own business, and you have attacked some of the nicest people I know. You take away people’s joy and happiness. At first, I was very angry, sad and depressed, but then one day I realized that you are the best thing that has happened to me.
Because of you, I have grown, and my character has developed. I have learned about ‘being in the present’ and cherishing time with my family and friends. I have learned about the world I live in, about relationships, loyalty, trust, faith and never-ending hope. Because of you, I pray more intently and hug my kids tightly. Because of you, I am stronger, I persevered, and because of you, I have found my purpose in life.
Dr. Halaharvi is a board-certified general surgeon with over six years of experience. She completed the Breast Surgery Fellowship at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center and provides a surgical practice focused on breast care and breast surgery.
Dr. Halaharvi’s interests include teaching, involvement in clinical breast disease research and community outreach activities. She can speak 4 languages which include: English, Hindi, Urdu & Telugu.