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Guest Editor | 'I cried with her' ... Doctor weeps with young patient about to lose her breast to cancer

Published:Friday | September 1, 2017 | 12:00 AMKrysta Anderson

Fulfilling a childhood dream can be such a beautiful feeling. And for Dr Zanya Henry, who has always wanted to be a doctor, she learnt from an early stage of her career the true meaning of "doctors save lives". Henry recounts her youthful years during her tenure as a medical student at the University of the West Indies.

Henry met a young female patient while in her third year of medical school. Little did she know that she would play a significant role in changing the patient's life. The patient was 25 at the time, with no known risk factors, but had been newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She had visited her doctor after realising that one of her breasts had altered in shape. Her general practitioner subsequently referred her to the surgeons at the Kingston Public Hospital, where Henry was then an intern.

A review was done, Henry said, and the patient was immediately admitted to the unit. She was in dire need of a mastectomy, but there was one problem. Because she was so young, she had a hard time coming to terms with the idea of losing her breasts and rejected the idea of the surgery. When the team of surgeons finally got her to accept the reality before her, she became very emotional and broke down in tears. Henry revealed that she subsequently refused to speak to anyone, and had completely shut down. No one could get through to her.

Time was running out, so in a last-ditch effort, Henry's consultant, Dr Turkessa Cherrie, came up with a plan. "Since I was almost the same age as the patient, Dr Cherrie asked me to try speaking with her to see if I could gather her history. When I approached her, I was met with a stone wall. She told me blankly that she did not want to talk."

That did not deter Henry, however, and she persisted. She told the patient, "I'm not going to force you, or anything, but just know that you're not alone. You really have a supportive team with you. We're all here to help you, and because we're so young, we get it. When the patient started to cry, I cried with her," she confessed.

Henry told her patient that because she was young, she would be better able to fight it. "When she asked me if she was going to die, I assured her that she was in really good hands," she added.

As the days went on, Henry continued to have dialogue with her young patient until she finally consented to have the surgery done. This, after eliciting a promise from Henry that she would stay with her throughout the process.

'She beat the system and the disease'

Post-surgery, Dr Zanya Henry's patient recovered, thankful for all of the help she had received from the team. "She expressed her gratitude then told me that I really made her look into herself and know that if she could beat this, then she could conquer anything."

There was no recurrence of the cancer after the operation, and so the young patient started a new journey on chemotherapy.

"I saw her a few months later, when I was transitioning into fourth year. She was being prepared to do reconstructive surgery and was so optimistic and cheerful, still expressing her thanks for everything."

Since then, Henry has graduated from medical school and begun her journey as a general practitioner. She walked away from this experience stronger than ever, knowing that not only did she positively change the life of a patient, but that that patient also helped to mould her into becoming the compassionate doctor she is today.

"Breast cancer is something that not only affects women physically, but emotionally, because we have this attachment to our breasts. And getting your mind to detach from it is not easy. But once I brought her to that place where I could show her that she can get through this, love herself without her breasts, still being accepted and beautiful, despite all of this, she just rose from it and was happier for making that decision. I haven't seen her in a while, but she always stood out to me while pursuing medicine.

"She survived. She beat the system. She beat the disease, and she came out victorious overall for it," Henry added.