I wanted to be a doctor since I was 4 years old. Back in India, where I was born, we used to have brooms with very long quills. I’d pluck them out, then run around giving “injections” to all of my relatives. My family moved to Columbia, Missouri, when I was 10, but it wasn’t until two years later that I got hooked on surgery when I saw my first surgical amputation — a leg that had a sarcoma, which is an aggressive cancer. While other kids were at summer camp, I signed up for a course that introduced middle school students to the medical field. They put us in scrubs and I was able to visit an operating room. I was excited by the way surgeons really used their hands and got right in there. I’ve always enjoyed fixing things and working with my hands. At the end of the day, it leaves me feeling like I’ve accomplished something.
I didn’t intend to become a breast surgeon, but I ended up interacting with many breast cancer patients during my medical training and found that I was drawn to them. Typically, they are extremely motivated and will do whatever it takes to get better. Maybe that’s because women are just good at getting things done. We have a laundry list of tasks — take care of our kids, our spouses, work — then, when cancer ends up on the list, we just deal with it.
People always ask me why rates of breast cancer are going up. One reason is the obesity epidemic. One of my research interests is how lifestyle changes like exercise can help prevent breast cancer and even improve outcomes in patients who already have the disease. Here, in New York City, I walk 12 miles a day without even trying. But when I was working in Texas, before joining NewYork-Presbyterian, I wanted to get in better shape, so I signed up for an hourlong boot-camp class three times a week.
I have always been a runner, but I wanted to get fitter and I wanted better arms. After seeing Michelle Obama, I thought, “I need those arms.” After a month, I felt great, and I ended up collaborating with a personal trainer to set up a study. We wanted to see if exercise could make a difference in overweight breast cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. In one group, we had patients work with the trainer three times a week then compared them with a second group, which received chemotherapy but didn’t exercise. The patients who worked out not only lost weight; their tumors shrunk more quickly and were less aggressive. I want to take this research to the next level here at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center by seeing how exercise might help breast cancer patients get through chemotherapy more easily, with less nausea and fatigue.