The image on the cover of Tali Lando Aronoff’s memoir is of a woman on a pink motorcycle wearing high heels, a leather jacket, big sunglasses, long earrings and a red bandana over her short-clipped hair.
The first sign that this is a cancer memoir is the ampersand in the title, “Hell & Back” (Archway), which is represented by a pink ribbon. The subtitle, “Wife & Mother, Doctor & Patient, Dragon Slayer,” is confirmation.
While there have been other books by cancer survivors, Aronoff adds important dimensions to the conversation; she writes as a patient, surgeon and young mother, combining practical, medical and emotional information with both candor and a sense of humor. Along the way, she receives much support from her family and the Modern Orthodox community in Westchester County.
In the summer of 2013, Aronoff, then 37, learned that her father had a brain tumor, and eight days later she discovered a lump in her chest that was diagnosed as breast cancer. Just three weeks after her father had brain surgery, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy. She then underwent chemotherapy and radiation to treat her Stage3C cancer, and when she finished her treatments, in 2014, her father died.
“When he began dying,” she writes, “I was starting to return to the business of living.”
Aronoff, a pediatric otolaryngology (ENT) surgeon, is the mother of three young daughters. In fact, her youngest was born prematurely, earlier in 2013, and spent five weeks in the neonatal ICU. She had always enjoyed writing and began taking notes during her illness, “as an outlet for the dark thoughts in my head during the hours I spent awake at night.” In addition, she’d recall moments of irony.
The book, she writes, “is intended as a helping guide for what comes next,” after a diagnosis of cancer, “a peek around the cover so you get less spooked when you face the monster.
I wanted to provide all the missing bits of information that doctors often omit.
The book is particularly useful for breast cancer patients, whether recently diagnosed or going through the ups and downs of treatment, as well as for their partners and families. Doctors, therapists and physicians-in-training can also learn from her experience. She writes in detail about reconstructive surgery and the choices involved, the reality of intense pain, insomnia, managing regret that she hadn’t been more vigilant sooner, losing her long hair and her experience with a wig (short-lived), scarves and very short hairstyles, and also dealing with sympathy, curiosity, her daughters’ fears, issues of privacy, the outpouring of food from her community and relationships with patients, colleagues, family members and friends.
As a physician, she is never alone in her decision-making, as she has the benefit of loving friends from medical school to consult and introduce her to specialists. But she admits that as she shifted from Dr. Lando, as she is known professionally, to Ms. Lando Aronoff, as her insurance card reads, she received professional courtesies, but also felt obligated to solve her own problems — and was not always the best patient.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, she says, “This makes you a different doctor.”
“I work with children and so my empathy for them and understanding of them as vulnerable people is one of the main reasons I chose my field. I know the kid is scared under anaesthesia, and I know how to be there for them. But as much logic as I had, it was very different when I became the patient and was on the table. It made me a better doctor in that I can understand the entire family’s experience, all the confusion, fear and uncertainty.”
She adds, “The parent population I deal with are mothers my age. It makes me more empathetic to how complicated life can be when your kids have challenges.”
Aronoff returned to full-time work during her radiation treatments. She made it through those early days, she writes, with a lot of caffeine to fight the fatigue, as well as willpower. At the same time, she always tried to create as much normalcy at home for her kids as was possible.
“My journey back to my ‘normal’ pre-cancerous self was not easy and it is still ongoing,” she writes.
When she discusses the sources of her strength, she first mentions the unwavering support of her husband. And then she speaks of her life experience.
This wasn’t the first time I faced adversity. You keep on going.
“Grit and determination are my main character traits. One foot in front of the other. Grit and determination got me through medical school and other life challenges. This wasn’t the first time I faced adversity. You keep on going.”
When asked whether Judaism was a comfort, she replies that it was a challenge and a comfort, and that her father’s illness and death shook her to the core.
“Losing my father at the same time was a challenge to faith. I also saw all the beautiful benefits of the communal elements of religion. You’re never alone; there were so many people willing to pick up the pieces.”