Dramatic diversion gives new outlook

My practice partner’s face said it all that Monday morning. While we were at my parents’ vineyard planting new vines, I can honestly say I hadn’t given much thought to the lump my husband had found the week before. I mean, I was 31, in excellent physical health, and had zero family history of breast cancer. So when my practice partner suggested I get a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy to be safe, I thought the likelihood of any bad news was nil and that it was just a harmless fibro adenoma. However, when my partner sat down in my office and pulled up a chair to take my hand in his, I knew it wasn’t good news.

I had no idea at the time how much this diagnosis would radically change my world and my outlook on it. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 6, 2011.

Prior to that day in June, I felt like I was living the dream I had worked so hard to create. I was a family physician in my second year of practice in a wonderful physician-owned group in Monticello, MN. I was hitting my stride as a physician, building up a lovely patient population, expanding my OB practice and even finding the time to put my name in the running for one of our hospital board seats. I had a beautiful, very busy and amazing twoyear- old son, Oliver, and the best stay-at-home dad I could ask for, my husband Dustin. So when my partner diagnosed me with breast cancer, I felt like I was ripped from my selfcreated paradise and thrust into the terrifying unknown.

When my practice partner sat down in my office and pulled up a chair to take my hand in his, I knew it wasn’t good news.

The thing that frightened me the most was not the painful treatments and surgeries I faced, but more the sudden uncertainty of my future. Being a “type A” personality like many physicians, I was used to being in relatively good control of my future, working hard and achieving my goals. Quite unexpectedly, I was faced with a diagnosis I knew surprisingly little about, and which I had no control over.

At first I felt understandably angry, frightened and confused. However, the immediate and continued outpouring of support from my family, friends, colleagues and even patients was staggering and indescribably wonderful. Through the next six months of doctor’s appointments, highdose chemo and surgeries, I never once felt alone; that gave me the hope I needed to make it through it all.

Now, three months out of treatment, I am getting back to my “semi-normal life.” I am back to work full-time, reconnecting with my patients and colleagues, and moving past my diagnosis and on to recovery. Even though to an outside observer my day-to-day life now might appear identical to my previous one, I think that all of the hardship, suffering and triumphs have made me a better person and physician. I understand that life cannot be perfectly planned or predicted. Therefore, focusing on the things that truly bring joy and meaning to my life make it more fulfilling. For me, these things are as simple as playing “cars” or “tickletime” with my son, camping with family or sharing the joy of listening to a baby’s first heartbeat with expectant parents. I feel I enjoy these simple pleasures much more than I did just eight months ago, and I am a better wife, mother, friend and physician because of it.

I never would have chosen such a dramatic and difficult life diversion if presented with the choice, but I have become thankful for the new outlook it has awarded me. There is no doubt that the breast cancer “road” is a difficult and complex one at its best, but it has given me many insightful gifts.

Nathania Hammel, D.O.’06, practices at the Monticello, MN, Clinic, works emergency room shifts in Wadena, MN, and takes geriatric call through the Health Partners System in the Twin Cities. Her husband, Dustin, says she continued to work on call through much of her breast cancer treatments and surgeries. “She is the strongest, most determined woman I know,” he adds. She returned to practice full-time in January.

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