“Humans are generally a resilient bunch when we have to be,” says Dr Sashie Howpage. If anyone knows this to be true, it’s Sashie who as a trainee doctor and a patient has experienced first hand what it’s like to sit both sides of the cancer fence.
During a nightshift whilst working as a Resident at RPA, Sashie developed severe chest pains and had difficulty breathing. “Being in medicine meant I had enough knowledge to know what I was facing,” she says of her diagnosis soon after with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
But being a doctor doesn’t mean you’re without fear. In fact one’s awareness of the repercussions, not just of the cancer but also of the treatment, mean that if anything, the fear has a solid basis in reality.
Describing cancer as “inherently sneaky”, Sashie says she dealt with her diagnosis by relying largely on the advice of her haematologist. “I came across a particularly depressing cancer blog early on in my treatment and decided it wasn’t going to help me so I made the decision to actively avoid all the information that was on the Internet.”
Even though Sashie works within the medical network, one of the hardest things she found during her own journey was the complexity around navigating the health system, which came as a shock to her. “Working out which clinic, chemo suite or radiotherapy unit you have to go to with whatever biopsy or scan result is difficult. I didn’t understand when my private health insurance was relevant either and seeing so many specialists before my treatment even started was simply overwhelming.”
This loss of control is something that the CancerAid app addresses, being able to streamline information on appointments, treatments and specialists without the data overload many cancer patients feel engulfed by. “The fear of the unknown and the loss of control are the biggest fears I had as a cancer patient,” Sashie says reflectively. “The app addresses both of these things.”
One of Sashie’s particular challenges is leaving her cancer to the side when she deals with her own patients. “I go home and wonder why I’m feeling completely exhausted and vulnerable. “I really struggled with the idea of returning to medicine. During the years of training, you sacrifice so much, there are times it doesn’t seem worth it.”
However, even whilst dealing with her own cancer, Sashie has been able to see the rewards of her work as a doctor, understanding inherently that her study and sacrifice have made a tangible difference to peoples lives. “I was cared for by dedicated clinicians that I would love to emulate when I eventually become a consultant. I’m so proud to work in the public health system.”
From her unique position of being both a patient and physician, Sashie feels one of the main areas of improvement for cancer patients lies with more and easier access to psychological counselling. It took one particularly harrowing visit to the chemotherapy suite, when Sashie was about to withdraw her consent for ongoing treatment, before she saw a psychologist. “I had put up such a strong front that I had tricked even myself into believing that I was dealing with having cancer.”
Sashie believes that psychological help should be an opt-out option, particularly for younger cancer patients although from her ‘insider’ perspective she recognises just how stretched these services are. “Having worked with oncology psychologists, I know the referrals they receive outweigh their capacity to see them all. It’s a big challenge.”
Sashie also recognises that her cancer Champions would also have benefited a great deal from some psychological support. Crediting her parents and brother with providing the support of “company, sympathy and distraction”, they too have been on their own journey by Sashie’s side.
For Sashie, the CancerAid Community would have a distinctive tri-fold benefit, helping her on her individual cancer journey, helping her parents as her Champions and helping her patients as a physician. “For a patient it will make the cancer journey a lot less daunting and confusing, and as a doctor, I know that a patient who understands their illness is far better equipped to cope.”
Since Sashie’s cancer she’s worked in Medical Oncology and Palliative Care, which was a very sobering experience. “Cancer has transformed me and the dreams I have. I consider myself very lucky that I didn’t get a more aggressive form of cancer.”
With her dog Coco by her side, Sashie is keen to emphasise that her experience as a patient was, despite everything, an overwhelmingly positive one. The irony isn’t lost on Sashie that as a clinician, her cancer has given her a unique perspective on her career ahead. When asked her best advice she says emphatically, “Have compassion and keep fighting the good fight.”