Dr Anitha, a former ear, nose and throat surgeon, came to New Zealand in 2017. An Indian woman who had been living in Malaysia for over 15 years, Anitha made the move for love – she met a Kiwi man who became her husband. But in February 2020, Anitha’s world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. She speaks out about the importance of taking control of your own health, staying positive, and the places where she found support.
My diagnosis and treatment journey…
I’d had a mammogram a few years ago and was told then that I had a cystic left breast which I really didn’t worry too much about it. But when I noticed a new lump in my right breast in early February this year, I had a strong intuition that something was wrong. I left it for a few days as I thought it might be insignificant. When it didn’t go away, I made an appointment to see my GP and she instantly referred me to see a breast specialist. I went privately and was seen the following week.
On 12th February I had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. I’d done my research and wanted to see the very best surgeon, so I waited a week for her to be available before I saw her with my biopsy result. On 17th February I got the confirmation that my suspicion was right and that I had breast cancer. I was advised that I would require surgery, followed by radiation and long-term hormonal therapy. The need for chemotherapy would be decided by the medical oncologist.
I was reassured that the type of cancer I had tended to have good outcomes. I was thankful to learn it wasn’t very aggressive, but obviously, I was still taken aback. I have been a surgeon for more than 20 years, during which I have seen and operated on numerous cancer patients, but nothing prepared me for being told that I have cancer.
Before getting the biopsy result, I made a conscious effort not to worry too much and I made sure I did not ‘Google’ anything. I instead focussed on staying positive and prayed for the strength that I knew I may need depending on the diagnosis.
Once my suspicions were confirmed, I started thinking about treatment options. I immediately knew that I had to create my ‘support group’ in what was going to be my biggest challenge and victory in my life. I had my wonderful spouse to bounce my ideas off, I had my group of primary school friends 24x7 on standby for my moments of doubt, my sister who also blessedly is a physician and my own will and desperation to achieve my own ‘new normal’. I spent day and night reading up (reliable resources) about breast cancer and all the factors that facilitate a cancer patient improve the odds of survival and quality of life.
Two weeks after receiving my diagnosis I had a lumpectomy. Then, at my follow up appointment a week later, I was told that they found further cancer cells and so require another surgery. I waited four weeks for the incision to heal properly and then started radiation therapy.
Thanks to the support of the staff at the radiation centre, this wasn’t as daunting as I thought it would be. I had enough energy to drive myself to the appointment and home afterwards. It was all happening during the Covid-19 situation, so I was quite worried about exposing myself to the virus. But it was all managed very professionally – I didn’t have to sit and wait around, I arrived and went straight in for my radiation and promptly left the hospital once it was done. I was very pleased by how smoothly it all went.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have the complete support and encouragement of my workplace, including time off throughout my treatment. I’ve been very careful and am taking it easy. There were days where I was affected badly by fatigue. It would feel like I had a huge piece of metal placed on my head. But I knew it was just the effects of the radiation, so I’d just sleep it out and be fine by the next day.
Taking my health into my own hands…
Having a medical background myself and being a survivor against all odds, I was very proactive about my treatment. I’m 48 and have no positive risk factors for cancer. I thought: ‘I’m going to kick it in the butt’, but I also know breast cancer will be something I have to live with. You never really cure cancer like you can with other conditions. But I was committed to letting myself heal properly and do everything I could to make sure it doesn’t come back. My ‘rescue squad’ included my oncoplastic breast surgeon, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, physiotherapist, nutritionist, counsellor and of course my GP. I consider myself very lucky that I have the resources and knowledge to get all of this invaluable support on my journey to healing.
I knew I had the option of going through the public health system but I wanted to stay in work as long as possible, and didn’t want the uncertainty, which would have been more so during the pandemic. Having health insurance was very important to me. Without it, I would have had to spend a huge proportion of my life savings on my treatments. But, if I had to, I would have done that – if I didn’t spend my hard-earned savings to keep myself well, when would I use it? Treating myself with shopping and eating out means nothing without my body, my vessel.
The one thing I want everyone to know is that we have to listen to our bodies. You think you might never be at risk, but you never know. Take advantage of screening – it’s painless, it’s free and it’s literally life-saving. Don’t just do it for yourself, but do it for the people who love and care for you. We are not in control of the outcome, but at least we can be happy we’ve given it our best shot. I’ve put up a fight and I’ve learnt the lessons from it.
A life-changing experience…
It’s been an interesting learning curve for me. I know it sounds clichéd, but I feel like I’ve been given a second chance in life. I now have a lot of empathy for people who are having a much more challenging time than I am. My heart goes out to people who are living with so much uncertainty in their lives.
I did have my moments of huge crying sessions, asking ‘Why me?’, and going through the upheaval of emotions. But I quickly realised how these negative thoughts were not getting me anywhere and were draining my energy. I needed to save all of my strength to heal so I made some very conscious choices to stay away from situations that would drain me out.
It was a huge mind shift for me to put work aside as the most important thing in my life. I confidently state now that we are not indispensable, no matter how important we think we are.
I have been a regular meditator since long, which I feel, has definitely helped me face this challenge in a much more compassionate way. I have now done the same with exercise, which I wasn’t doing before. Now, I don’t do it for fun, rather, I treat it like getting up and having a shower and taking my medicines. On days when I didn’t have the energy or the inclination to go out for walks (thanks, Auckland weather!), I would definitely do some gentle yoga that helped me tremendously. In spite of the Covid lockdown, I was thankfully allowed to go around my beautiful neighbourhood for my early morning walks – something that I really enjoyed and cherished. I would sometimes listen to some inspirational/educational podcasts, or sometimes just listen to the birds chirping or focus on my breath. It’s just part of what I have to do.
I’ve also completely changed my diet and nutrition. I now am mindful of everything that goes on my plate and have adopted the well-known fact ‘Food is Medicine’ as a part and parcel of my life. I knew what I needed, aside from the treatment, and I know what’s going to keep me going. I literally have a whole new life.
I’ve also learnt that mortality isn’t just a word out there I’ve read, or in a patient I’ve treated. It’s closer to home now. It’s given me a new perspective. I’ve learnt to let go of some situations, I’ve accepted there are some things I have no control of (correction, most things...). I’ve always had a strong spiritual belief and through challenging times like this, that belief just gets stronger when I can really feel someone is watching out for me.
The invaluable support I’ve received…
I was given a pack from Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) when I was first diagnosed, which contained a bunch of helpful resources and information. I was blown away by the additional support they offered.
Cancer isn’t a cheap illness to live with. No matter how hard you try, the expenses do add up. So, to be able to receive free resources and funding for counselling has meant a lot.
I developed some known complications after my surgery which required physiotherapy. This again was partly funded by the Foundation and this has been of tremendous help in my recovery.
The nurses were so gracious and prompt to respond. And I’ve become very attached to the heart-shaped pillow I was given. It’s like a faithful companion, it’s been such amazing support post-surgery.
I’ve spoken to many of the nurses who have been so kind and welcoming. I feel like I can approach them with any question, either on the phone or through the mybc app. It’s been such a comfort to know there is someone available any time to answer any queries I have. I even had one phone call after 5pm on a Friday night – I couldn’t believe the commitment!
Your surgeon and oncologist come and go but the support coming from BCF was constant and it made me feel so supported. I haven’t needed to go anywhere else for support because when I needed it, BCF was there.
I’m originally from India and before moving to New Zealand I had lived in Malaysia for over 15 years. I always thought I’d eventually retire in India, but I met a Kiwi man and that’s what brought me here. And although I have been here for only three years, my experience with breast cancer has shown me how New Zealand really is my new home. Throughout my treatment, not once was I made to feel like I was from another country or of another race, I was just another human being. When I was going through radiation therapy, lying there in such a vulnerable position, I never had a single moment of discomfort or differential treatment.
In times like this it can be hard to reach out to family when you’re dealing with your own emotions. I didn’t want my family to freak out; I didn’t want to be spending more time consoling them in addition to dealing with my own emotions. So, I didn’t tell my 85-year-old mum, a million miles away in India and unable to do anything. When I most needed support, I got it through total strangers – the people at Breast Cancer Foundation, and my medical team.
Dr Anitha lives in Auckland with her husband and his two teenage children. She has given up her career of an ENT surgeon and is now an author, a certified life coach and a cancer coach. She works with people afflicted with cancer and helps them create a new life that each of them are entitled to, with our without cancer.