A cancer diagnosis and social responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr Archana Shah

I experienced many challenges and victories in 2020, at the beginning of and during the peak of COVID-19, as a Gynaecologist, wife, mother, and cancer warrior. I am Dr. Archana Shah - Consultant gynaecologist and laparoscopic surgeon in Ahmedabad, India, with 25 years of experience running private hospitals. Some call me a celebrity because I am a regular print media columnist, and an active member of various NGOs, Lions & Rotary Club through which I advocate for women's health.

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were full of doubts and uncertainty regarding both prevention and treatment. My work and family responsibilities increased significantly over a brief period. Domestic staff, who are crucial to the running of a household in India, resigned because of this disease. Concerns about the new virus frightened hospital staff. The hospitals were looking to me for guidance as the Director of a Multi-Specialty Hospital — there were no set protocols of COVID-19 management in the initial days. Everything was chaotic. However, despite these challenges, I am proud to say that there was not a single day when either of my two hospitals were closed. We continued with our many emergency surgeries and deliveries with the ‘ever-evolving’ COVID-19 protocols.

As the carnage of COVID-19 increased, it was scary and disheartening with some close friends and family succumbing. My husband, who is also a doctor, and I had the difficult conversation of contingency plans regarding the care of our two sons and my 80-year-old mother-in-law if both of us were to get infected together. But this was to be only the beginning of my challenges.

In June 2020, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within three days of my incidental self-examination, I was under the knife. I did not want to keep my patients unattended, so I finished all my pending surgeries up to and including on the Sunday before surgery. Although the cancer preyed on my mind, I endeavoured to fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability, and continued to guide my patients, staff, and juniors in my hospital through online and phone consults. This mindset enabled me to complete my patients’ surgeries with a calm and composed mind. Being a surgeon, I was not afraid of the surgery and went into surgery with a very positive frame of mind, particularly because I thought my diagnosis was early stage.

The cancer however, turned out to be advanced with lymph node involvement. I was commenced on intensive chemotherapy and radiation therapy. There were days when I felt like I just could not handle it. I would feel physically and mentally exhausted, but through the support of my husband and family, I was able to keep going. They motivated me and gave me the strength I needed. They surprised me with a small dog, a beagle, to keep me company. By the end of the year, I was back at my hospital, treating and operating on my patients.

The dawn of the New Year 2021 brought a ray of hope. I had finished my cancer treatment, was in remission, and had received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. My hospital and I felt it was important to fulfill our social responsibility regarding vaccinations, so we volunteered to be a vaccination centre for the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in the hope that all healthcare workers would be encouraged to get the vaccine. As the general population of India as well as medical staff were reluctant to take the shot, we transformed our hospital to become a centre to provide and encourage vaccinations.

I have always prided myself on my being remarkably busy with my career and my advocacy work. But my journey through COVID-19 and cancer has changed me. It taught me one thing, CARPE DIEM — seize the moment. Life is unpredictable in so many ways. Live life to the fullest NOW, TODAY AND ALWAYS.