Tarane Sondoozi’s only job, for the past 17 years, has been to advise employees across the Scripps Health system — to provide assessment, referral and a compassionate ear when professional and personal problems develop.
Then, two years ago, the staff psychologist’s own turn came.
“I kept going to the physicians and saying it’s not in my uterus, but I’m hosting something,” Sondoozi said. “I just had a feeling that something wasn’t right. But they couldn’t find anything. It’s not like they weren’t listening to me.”
Then, she injured her back. While lying down, she detected the lump in her left breast.
Sondoozi will tell the story of her journey during Cancer Survivor’s Day, a celebratory event at Scripps Memorial Hospital on June 30. But she covered what she called the “bullet points” with La Jolla Light recently, during an emotional session in a conference room at the Schaetzel Center.
Sondoozi is one of more than 15.5 million people in the U.S. now living with and beyond a diagnosis of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society — a number expected to grow to 20 million by 2026. Overall cancer survivorship rates in the U.S. have grown from about 50% 30 years ago to 70% today.
Gladys doesn’t live here anymore
Sondoozi calls her cancer “the best thing that ever happened” to her. In fact she even calls her cancer by a name, Gladys, because she says, “I’m glad it happened.”
“I think when we lose something — whether it’s a breast or a body part or the idea that our bodies are whole and everything is great — it’s loss,” Sondoozi said. “And loss is loss and we do sad, mad and bad. And we never talk about glad.”
Just prior to her 2016 surgery, Sondoozi performed a Google search and found a photo of a woman she thought looked just like Gladys. She imagined her as a good friend who was also an unwanted guest.
“I’m Persian by heritage and hospitality is in our cultural DNA,” she said. “So I decided to do to Gladys what I would do to any unwanted guest: welcome them into my house, figure out what they need, serve them and make sure they leave with what they wanted, and that they don’t leave anything behind, so they don’t have to come back.”
When she told her surgeon about her strategy, the woman turned white. She told Sondoozi that her mother’s name was Gladys and she has breast cancer. The surgeon had to tell her mother that she couldn’t operate on her because it would be a conflict of interest.
“I said, ‘Well, then, doctor, the universe has brought us together,’” Sondoozi said. “’I respectfully request that you find and remove Gladys as if you’re operating on your mother’s breast.’ And she cried and hugged me, and we went into surgery together.”
The surgery succeeded in removing the cancer, but revealed a 2.3-millimeter calcification in Sondoozi’s lymph node. The cancer had metastasized.
“If it wasn’t in my lymph nodes, the prognosis would be excellent,” Sondoozi said. When it sits in your lymph nodes, it has the opportunity to go wherever it wants — especially since we cut into it. We don’t know what we released.”
Sondoozi underwent radiation and, currently, 5-to-10 years of oral chemotherapy — one pill a day. She’s in her third year.
“It’s really hard to take,” she said. “The quality of life in terms of functionality is not that great — especially brain fog.”
However, she said: “Gladys has made the pain more tolerable, because I know it’s not permanent. And she has made the joy unbelievably deeper and richer, because I know it’s not permanent. She has brought the permanence of impermanence home.”
The only time Sondoozi’s eyes welled during this interview is when she spoke of her daughters’ reactions.
“I think the toughest part of dealing with life-altering diagnoses is other people’s emotions,” she said.
She said her eldest daughter was “very anxious, very devastated.” Her youngest saw in it an opportunity. In England, where Sondoozi grew up, there was an extremely popular children’s TV show featuring a hand-puppet fox named Basil Brush. It’s still in production.
“She contacted the producers of ‘The Basil Brush Show’ and had Basil record her a message for me,” Sondoozi said. “One of the things that happens with any disease is that we regress, and when we regress, we want mama, we want daddy. My dad is 89 years old, my mother has dementia and does not know I have breast cancer. And this 17 year old, on her own, reached out into my childhood…”
Sondoozi couldn’t finish her thought.
“I don’t know what those tears are,” she said, “if they are of joy, of being touched, of awe, gratitude.”
Now, she said, every day starts and end with an ‘I love you’ to whomever she feels affection for, “whether it be my family, my colleagues, my clients.” She also said she’s making more time for the things I love to do, whatever they are — most recently, it was a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oregon for 10 days.
“The most precious thing we have is our time,” she said. “It is limited, and it shouldn’t take a disease to bring that to our attention.”
— Tarane Sondoozi will speak at Cancer Surivors Day, 10:30-11:30 a.m. Sat., June 30 at the Schaetzel Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital, 9890 Genesse Ave. Admission is free.