Dr. Sramila Aithal’s position as a hematologist and medical oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia can be complicated. But when she gets to celebrate with her patients who are five-year cancer survivors, it’s all worth it.
“This is the best day of my life,” she said.
CTCA last week hosted its annual Celebrate Life event, honoring 52 cancer survivors who reached the half-decade milestone. The day is filled with “hope rounds,” where survivors meet current patients to offer inspiration and wisdom, an interactive Tree of Life displaying names and virtues, and reunions with the care team that made their journey possible.
The five-year milestone means a lot, said breast cancer survivor Sarah Bly. It was a day she was certain she would never reach.
“I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at 45,” said Bly, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia and works as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
“I was shocked. I thought I did everything right,” she said, saying she frequently exercised, ate healthily and was not a smoker.
Bly missed a few mammograms over the years – something she kicks herself for now. She said she noticed a lump, but did not immediately act to get it examined. When the doctors first gave her the diagnosis, she even remembered getting snarky in her response out of flat-out denial.
“It took me a long time to wrap my head around the fact I had cancer,” she said. “You can do everything right in your world and you can still get cancer. You can never take your health for granted.”
Bly is from Junction City, Kansas and had no nearby family to consistently help her when she underwent treatment. As a flight attendant, most of her friends were flight attendants as well, giving them unconventional schedules. The Center provided transportation to and from her front door, giving her the ability to make it to appointments independently.
Bly was reunited with Dr. Aithal, her doctor, at the celebration. She still wears a wrap and compression sleeve around her left arm after developing lymphedema as a side effect to chemotherapy, and will have to wear the sleeve for the rest of her life.
“Even though you have cancer it never ends, but once I hit the five year-mark I thought, wow, I can do it. I’ve come so far,” she said.
She stressed the importance of getting frequent checkups, suggesting everyone get one physical a year. Mammograms are important, too, she stressed, and men can suffer from breast cancer and other types of cancer as well.
“When you first get diagnosed, you think you’re never going to get through it and there’s never going to be a light on the other side,” she said. “Then you hit your five-year mark and think, I’m happy, I’m here, I’m alive.”