I found the lump. I was not looking for it, but I knew something was wrong with my breast. Over a period of several months, I noticed subtle changes in the shape of my breast. At times, it felt heavy and ached. Then an obvious lump appeared. I ignored it at first, convinced it was a cyst and would go away. It didn’t go away. I had never had a mammogram, which may seem remiss for an obstetrician-gynecologist (I’ll save that discussion for another time.) Even with what turned out to be a 4.7 cm tumor, my mammogram was read as essentially normal, just dense breasts. The biopsy, done several days later, was not normal. It was cancer.
I thought I was healthy. I was 44 years old. I enjoy exercise. I swim, bike and run. I ski both downhill and cross country. I do pilates and yoga. I am not overweight, do not smoke, and eat a reasonably healthy diet. And yet, despite all that, in February of 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
How could this happen? I certainly never expected it would happen to me. But it did. While I will always wish that this had never happened, my diagnosis has given me a new perspective. I have been able to look at my lifestyle, make some necessary changes, and reexamine my role as a physician.
I feel lucky because I like to exercise, and I like to cook. A nutritious diet and regular exercise are both significant contributors to a healthy lifestyle. I thought my diet was healthy (with an occasional indulgence) but when I looked at it, I realized I did not eat enough fruits and vegetables. I have since reduced the amount of meat I eat. I am not a vegetarian, but I have tried to make fruits and vegetables the focus of my diet with lean meat or fish as a complement to the vegetables.
For me, changing my diet was a relatively minor lifestyle change. The biggest change I had to make was reducing stress and anxiety. Being an OB/GYN is as challenging as it is rewarding — and it is also very stressful. I worked hard to become a doctor and then an OB/GYN, but I knew that I could not go back to the job I had before my cancer diagnosis. Making a real change meant walking away from years of school and training, not to mention a lucrative salary. But I needed to do it for my health. And so I quit my job.
Today I am healthier and happier than I have been in several years. I remain passionate about women’s health and healthcare. Nothing has educated me more than my own health crisis. My experience as a patient is now an integral part of my role as a physician. I hope to share my experience with others. In sharing, I hope that what I have learned will be helpful not just to other cancer patients and survivors, but also anyone who wants to take an active role in their health and well-being.