When she began her career as a breast surgeon, Deepa Halaharvi, DO (COM '08), had one hope for her practice: “My prayer was, ‘How can I best serve my patients?’” She never imagined that the answer would come in the form of her own breast cancer diagnosis, just eight months after she finished a breast surgical oncology fellowship and started work as a breast surgeon.
Halaharvi’s diagnosis was not her first introduction to adversity. She is the child of immigrant parents who moved to the United States from India in the 1980s. She worked her way through college as a licensed practical nurse, then took a break from her education to help care for her father after he had a stroke during surgery for a brain tumor. During the years she spent caring for her father, she became a physician’s assistant, got married and had children. But she felt the desire to do more in her practice. She wanted to go to medical school. With plenty of sacrifice and a leap of faith, she did it.
When Halaharvi started medical school at KCU, she planned to become a trauma surgeon, but in her fourth year of surgical residency at OhioHealth in Columbus, Ohio, a special patient altered her plan. The stage IV breast cancer patient was a woman her age with kids the same age as hers. They developed a rapport during the woman’s time at the hospital, and she suggested that Halaharvi would make a great breast cancer surgeon. Her residency mentor agreed, and the program director of the hospital’s breast surgery fellowship recommended that she apply to be a fellow.
Halaharvi graduated from the fellowship in July 2014. Her father died that November. Four months later, she had a dream in which her father appeared. “I was telling him that the right side of my chest hurt and he told me to get a mammogram,” she said. Like many women, she had gotten busy with the demands of work and family and had put off the screening until age 42 even though she could have been screened at age 40.
The mammogram revealed a mass in her right breast and a biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of stage I hormone receptor-positive invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most common types of breast cancer in women. Thankfully, it was caught early. She believes the dream was her dad’s way of taking care of her after she had taken care of him for so long.
Halaharvi opted for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in order to avoid radiation treatment. She had a total of five surgeries in a year due to multiple infections that took time to heal. Halaharvi emphasized that “the choice of treatment is very personal, and every woman in this situation needs to make the decision that’s right for her.”
Many patients can now make more informed treatment decisions than ever thanks to a test Halaharvi herself also took called the Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score. For patients like her with early-stage, invasive breast cancer (hormone receptor-positive, HER2 negative), the test assesses the individual biology of a tumor and can predict whether a patient will benefit from chemotherapy, as well as the likelihood of the cancer recurring. The test improves treatment outcomes, reduces negative side effects and reduces healthcare costs. The results of Halaharvi’s test determined she would not benefit from chemotherapy.
Facing her own cancer journey taught Halaharvi a lot about what her patients go through, from the shock and grief of diagnosis to the struggle of procedures, treatments and complications to the long-term path of survivorship. “It’s something you can’t fully understand until you go through it yourself,” she said. That is why she takes care to do more than operate on her patients. She treats them as whole people.
“My patients have become my family,” said Halaharvi, “It is very important to show compassion for them and never take away their hope.” She organizes Finding Your New Normal, an annual event at OhioHealth for breast cancer survivors and their co-survivors. The event is a celebration of survivors and an opportunity for them to reconnect with medical staff and ask any questions.
She helps patients navigate all that comes after surgery, answering their questions and calming their fears, but she knows that people can only retain so much of what they hear in a medical appointment. That’s why she started The Breast Cancer Podcast with another breast cancer survivor and cancer patient advocate. The podcast allows her to share helpful information with patients that can affect their quality of life and care. The audio format is especially appropriate for sensitive topics because listeners can use headphones to listen in private.
A recent episode addressing how breast cancer treatments affect sexual health and satisfaction was one of the most downloaded episodes of the podcast. The show reaches people far beyond Halaharvi’s practice and has been downloaded in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania and Africa.
For fans of video, Halaharvi’s outreach extends to TikTok, a favorite platform of younger viewers. There, she offers helpful, small doses of breast cancer information as @breastdoctor. Continuous education is central to her mission. When she’s not podcasting or creating informational TikToks, she is speaking at conferences, presenting new research and advocating for innovative care. “Every time you teach, you learn something new,” she said.
Along with education, she is passionate about service and standing up for equity. As a resident, she didn’t have many female peers or mentors, so she started a group for women general surgery residents called Chicks with Knives. It is a mentorship program that meets quarterly and helps residents learn how to navigate interviews, negotiate compensation, deal with harassment, balance work and life and more.
The group started with four or five members and has grown to include more than 30. Halaharvi also saw a need for reconstruction care for underserved patients, particularly the uninsured and underinsured. For that reason, she started the Breast Reconstruction Project to secure financial aid for reconstructive breast surgery. Halaharvi plans to have a fundraising fashion show next year to support the cause.
Halaharvi’s vision for the future is a world where breast cancer patients will not only be treated medically, but healed emotionally and mentally, too. She would love to invite patients to a practice that offers excellent medical care and feels like a spa or a boutique where they can be fitted for wigs and bras, enjoy a massage, talk to a therapist, and enjoy a nice meal. No matter how her vision comes to life, her aim is to help patients not just survive, but thrive.