Appeared online and in print for the March 2014 issue of Reader’s Digest Canada
The pale walls of Abha Gupta’s office in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) are bare, except for the corkboard hanging by her desk. The shiny metal frame holds what the 40-year-old oncologist considers a window into her practice. She never intended to become a collector of photographs, but her job left her little choice. When patients or their families give her snapshots of their lives, how can she refuse? Some photos depict a smiling patient receiving treatment; others show a child with a horse or being kissed by a dolphin while on vacation. The collage is a testament to Gupta’s seven years on staff at both SickKids and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. She estimates that half of the people on the board are dead.
Gupta sees upward of 20 patients—a mix of children and adults—during a workweek that lasts about 50 hours. One of her recent cases was Taira Stewart, a 35-year-old mother of two from Brampton, Ont. Almost four years ago, Stewart was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that usually attacks the body’s soft tissue; in Stewart’s case, it targeted her left leg. She went through treatment and emerged “cancer-free” in 2011, but the following spring the tumours returned. This time, they dotted the inside of her body.
That diagnosis brought her to Gupta. A sarcoma specialist, the doctor knew Stewart’s relapse was incurable. Once soft-tissue tumours metastasize, patients typically have two years to live. It was an upsetting prognosis to deliver—Gupta is herself the mother of a four-year-old girl—but Stewart was undeterred. She agreed to a new treatment plan, one that involved radiation, aggressive chemotherapy and the possible removal of her leg. She also married her long-time partner, Chris Hof. Taking cues from Stewart’s determination, Gupta focused on keeping her patient alive as long as possible. “She was a tough lady,” says Gupta, “who demonstrated as much bravery as anyone could in that situation.”
Stewart was an example of what Gupta tells her patients: Don’t let the cancer define you; live your life as normally as possible. It’s advice, however, that Gupta herself struggles to follow. While she understands she can’t save everyone, she has a hard time not taking a terminal diagnosis personally. “My time of grief isn’t tied to the day a patient dies. It’s the death watch itself,” she says. “Knowing the disease is progressing, and nothing I do can stop it.”
One of the most difficult points in her treatment of Stewart came last September, when Gupta told Hof to stop working and spend as much time as possible with his wife because she was going to be gone in a month. She watched the acknowledgement wash over Hof’s face, leaving the 53-year-old in tears. Such conversations, says Gupta, never stop being difficult. “It’s too hard to bear the families’ sense of loss,” she adds.