I knew it was important to get good grades in medical school; that is, I knew it was important to know the material. And I knew I had to master diagnostic skills, too, like learning to distinguish different heart murmurs or identify degrees of burn to the skin. But what I was most interested in learning was not the knowledge of medicine, per se, but how to use that knowledge in the service of my patients. In other words, I wanted to learn how to be a good doctor. So during my four years in medical school I'd ask professors and clinicians whom I respected the following question; what does it take to be a good doctor? The first response I received was the best I ever heard. It was from a professor of pathology, Dr. Oscar Auerbach.
Dr. Auerbach began by telling me that the answer to my question was simple - always music to my ears when I was stumped. He said, "First find something that you love and do it; then publish, and the world will come to you." Like all truths, it was simple and pure. I felt relieved. Surely, I could find something I loved.
First of all, I loved medicine; so I was off to a good start. Mind you, not everyone who goes to medical school loves medicine. But I did. And I knew from day one that I loved working with women. So I would plan on finding a speciality whose patients were predominately women. Then I fell in love with surgery, and discovered along the way that I was very interested in breast cancer. My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1975. Her experience, and mine, left its mark on my psyche and produced an indelible curiosity about this disease.
In my third year of surgical residency I hit upon the idea of doing an elective on the breast service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. That was a eureka moment, when Auerbach's equation looked like it was nearly solved for me. I fell in love with breast cancer surgery as a specialty and Memorial Sloan-Kettering as an institution. Two years later I convinced the Chief of the Breast Service at Memorial to create their first fellowship, and suggested myself as their first candidate. Two days later, when he offered me the spot, I was thrilled. In 1995, when I was given the opportunity to create the first Breast Service at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey I felt I had completed the first part of Auerbach's formula: find work that you love and do it.
The next step, publishing, seemed unnecessary to me at the time. I was happy enough just taking care of patients and achieving improved outcomes for breast cancer treatment. It wasn't until I finished the first International Masters for Health Leadership at McGill University in 2008, that I saw the need to reach beyond just taking care of my patients to trying to understand the causes of breast cancer and working to prevent the disease entirely. That's when publishing became important for me. When, in 2006, I first learned about the human mammary tumor virus, an infectious agent that may be responsible for as much as 40% of all breast cancer, I knew it was time to begin writing in earnest. And when Professor Vincent Tuohy developed the first preventive breast cancer vaccine at the Cleveland Clinic last year, I knew I had better turbo-charge my writing efforts if I hoped to make a difference for women everywhere in the world.
Several books, three apps, and one documentary film are the results of my writing and publishing efforts since I created the Breast Health & Healing Foundation in 2008. While I can't say that Auerbach's conclusion, "the world will come to you," has materialized - to be honest, who would really wantthat - I can say that a few women have been touched, grateful, and surprised to learn about the virus and the vaccine. The goal, now, is to enlarge that circle of women.
My most recent writing effort has taken the form of another book, "How to Cook a Revolution, Recipes + Stories = Goal." So far, my patients are enjoying it. And even if I only sell a few books, I know I have learned, and now live, the most important lesson from medical school, thanks to Dr. Auerbach. I have found what I love and am doing it.