Elixir Profiles: Q&A with Dr. Deanna J. Attai
I was first introduced to Dr. Deanna J. Attai after reading her bio on twitter. In less than 160 characters, I was immediately a fan. It is not often you find members of the medical community who are conventionally trained who also embrace eastern philosophy as well as organic gardening. Soon after, I started to take part in a weekly tweet chat dedicated to supporting cancer patients and their caregivers. It is co-moderated by her and two others and takes place every Monday at 9pm EST. Dr. Attai is a fierce patient advocate and gives diet/lifestyle advice that surpasses the many pamphlets that one receives at the Doctor’s office. For this reason she is the first person to be featured in my new column, aptly titled the “Elixir Profiles”. Please enjoy this insightful Q&A:
Q: Could you tell us a little about what made you decide to become a breast surgeon?
A: After medical school, I completed a general surgery residency (at Georgetown, in Washington DC). I was attracted to surgery due to the ability to immediately fix problems. Caring for women with benign and malignant breast conditions was always a large part of my practice, typical for any general surgery practice. I’ve been in several different practice situations, and each time, got to the point where well over 50% of my patients were being seen for breast-related problems. I started to enjoy the longer-term relationships that I had with my breast patients compared to my general surgery patients, and also started to enjoy how much of a role I could play in these women’s lives; I didn’t only address the breast cancer or other breast issue, I was asked for and gave advice related to other areas of health and wellness. So the initial attraction of problem-solving gave way to the desire to have longer-term relationships and provide more than organ-specific treatment. Around 2002 I started taking breast ultrasound courses and saw the potential for incorporating this into my practice for diagnostic and therapeutic imaging; by 2003 I was finally in my own solo practice, and by 2004, decided to focus only on breast disease. I feel that my transition to a breast surgeon was a gradual and natural transition, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q: What is the role of the breast surgeon? Is there anything a patient should do to prepare in advance when going to see one?
A: I can probably best answer this by providing a link from my website:
A woman going to see a breast surgeon should prepare for a 30-60 minute consultation depending on what she is being seen for, including review of her imaging studies (mammogram, ultrasound, MRI, etc), pathology report, and physical exam. One of my pet peeves is when women do not bring in their outside imaging studies – a report is not enough! I want to review the images myself, not rely on a report to draw my conclusions. Bringing a friend or family member is recommended, especially if you are being seen for a complex problem, as sometimes a lot of material is covered and it helps to have someone else present to take notes or ask questions.
Q: I was diagnosed at 34 years old and now I get a lot of questions from friends/relatives about mammograms and other screening options. Do you have any advice to offer to this specific population?
A: Especially in young women who likely have dense breast tissue, we will often add ultrasound and/or MRI to annual mammograms. No imaging study is perfect, and no imaging study reliably is able to “see through” dense breast tissue. However using a combination of imaging studies can help reduce the chance that a concerning or suspicious finding will be missed. In addition, I’d stress especially to young women that they should not ignore their breast self-exam and their gut instinct – if they feel something different or are not sure, get the finding evaluated.
Q: Did your work as a clinician nurture your love for living a health-supportive lifestyle (which includes avoiding gluten-free foods and organic vegetable gardening)? Which came first?
A: I always considered myself to be fairly healthy, but the reality is it was not until I had my own bout with illness a few years ago that I really got the wake-up call. The gluten-free diet was a part of my whole “transformation”, which has included a transition to a non-processed, primarily plant-based diet, much of which I (try to) grow myself – I’ve been blessed with beginner’s gardening luck as well as a wonderful Southern California climate. It has also given me a real appreciation for the amazing healing capacity of our bodies and spirits, as well a much better appreciation of what my limits truly are. While I still try to push through those limits, I’m much more accepting of my boundaries than ever before. I wrote a little about my dietary changes here. I also feel that what I’ve gone through personally has made me a much better physician; dealing with illness and recovery as a patient has taught me things that medical school and 17 years of clinical practice did not even begin to cover!
Q: On your website, you have an entire section dedicated to diet/lifestyle and it’s role in breast cancer. It’s clear you are very interested in health, wellness and disease prevention. Have you noticed a difference in your own health as a result of these actions?
A: There is no question that I’ve noticed tremendous differences in my own health, both mental and physical. And I try to combine what I have learned from personal experience with what I learned from my medical training when I approach a patient, whether she has breast cancer, is interested in reducing her risk of breast cancer or other disease, or simply is interested in leading a healthier life. We do not have all the answers – unfortunately a healthy diet is not going to solve or prevent all problems. However we are learning more and more everyday about the role of diet and lifestyle in terms of reducing chronic inflammation and disease / condition prevention, that to me it’s silly to ignore all of this evidence, as well as that accumulated over centuries in disciplines such as Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. We still have lots to learn, but the basics are out there!