A doctor’s survival: Fighting a battle I didn’t choose
Two years ago, July 15, 2013 to be precise, I was diagnosed with advanced stage of breast cancer at the age of 40. A mother to two young children and a practicing psychiatrist, my life had handed me a revised script. The diagnosis of cancer had turned my world upside down, felt so lost and confused.
Every morning as soon as I woke up, the word ‘cancer’ would light up in my mind like blazing neon sign on the strip in Las Vegas. Cancer, cancer, cancer. I had been marked. The guarantee to life had just been rescinded from me and in return I was given a life time of uncertainty. I grieved for my care free life that I once had. I felt agonised over the harsh treatment regimen that was in my fate.
The mother in me feared for her children having to encounter this world, without their mother, the woman in me morbidly terrified of the mutilation of my body. A wave of anxiety and apprehension surrounded me and I felt trapped in a maze with no exit.
One mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast), 16 chemotherapies and 33 radiation treatments were my pick of the draw, spread miserably over an entire year. In the wake of it all, waited the lifelong anxiety of a possible recurrence of this ailment.
Emotionally devastated and facing mortality, I was responsible not only for myself but also for the well-being of my patients. My shoulders ached from the burden of being a doctor with cancer. The insecurity of the patient gown felt incredibly alien, a very sharp contrast to the control and comfort of the white coat that I so adored.
From the side effects of chemotherapies to survival rates, I had full access to frightening information. I was cursed with the ability to understand the aggressive nature of my cancer cell described on the pathology report. Transported to the other side of table, I didn't know which way to turn.
I looked at my life and what I needed to deal with. I chose to go public with my diagnosis and openly shared with all my friends and family that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This led to huge pouring of support from places that I couldn’t have imagined. Friends put me in touch with other cancer survivors, who shared their stories with me and supported me.
Not a single day went by when I didn’t receive a gift, a card or flowers. I still remember the joy I felt when a school friend baked some naan khatais and sent them to me. My husband changed his job, so he could work from home and help me through my treatments. My clinic allowed me to change my hours, so I could continue to work. Inside I was trying to gear up for the fight of my life. I was still scared and apprehensive.
Newly diagnosed at my desk, I was typing a progress note for a chronically ill, very poor and homeless patient who diligently came to treatment every day, though she never really improved. I asked myself a question,
“If she can persist with so little to hold on to, why couldn’t I? I am blessed with so much more.”
I attempted to see hope through her eyes and the eyes of others that I treated.
I convinced myself that I will not let cancer interrupt with my life and I needed to live life just the way it was, as best as I could.
Three weeks after my surgery, tired and medicated and weak from pain, I returned to the office.
My patients needed their doctor and the truth is, I also needed them. Nauseated and fatigued, I sobbed many times on my drive to work, and then wiped the tears off before exiting the car.
Throughout that year, my patients and I struggled together as we sustained each other. I inquired how they were and very kindly, they would ask the same. I would lie that I was doing well, and they wouldn’t dispute it. Even the most impaired by mental illness, supported me. I recall how unexpectedly, a severely schizophrenic patient chose to quietly walk with me to the office, just to keep me company. Once I couldn’t drive, due to radiation burns, so my husband drove me to work but I couldn’t fathom cancelling their appointments.
We were healing in parallel, my patients and I. They saw me at my worst as I fought my cancer and their persistence kept me afloat. We evolved in unison.
A patient remarked last week,
“You finally look well, last year you really didn’t look all that good!”
I smiled and responded.
“Yes, it was a very hard time.”
Looking back, I truly believe that any success, even as mediocre as I consider my survival to be, requires ruthless honesty from oneself and willingness to be vulnerable. Hope comes from unexpected places. You need to embrace your adversity and just give it a try. True healing can happen only after being broken; I was certainly no exception to this rule.