Hell and Back-a breast cancer story

The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.

Psalm 116:3, KJV, public domain

Wife and mother

Just based on the title, you know this isn’t a happy story.

The main character, Tali, seems to have the perfect life. She is a pregnant young woman with a husband who adores her and two beautiful children. They have good jobs, a nice house, a nanny who is good with the kids. She has a loving and supportive extended family.

Then her father is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. She develops life threatening preeclampsia. She has an emergency caesarean section, delivering her baby prematurely.

Then she finds a lump in her breast. It is cancer- that has already spread.

Oh, did I tell you she is a physician with a busy surgical practice?

Hell & Back: Wife & Mother, Doctor & Patient, Dragon Slayer

by Tali Lando Aronoff, M.D.

Hell & Back is not a novel. It is a memoir by pediatric ENT (ear, nose, throat) physician Tali Lando Aronoff, M.D. who finds her perfect life upended in ways she never imagined would happen to her.

(By way of disclosure, I have never met Dr. Aronoff. After reading about her, I asked for a complimentary copy (PDF) of her book in exchange for a review. This blog post has affiliate links which will help fund this blog if a purchase is made. )

Doctor and patient

A physician’s illness can be awkward, both for us and for those who take care of us. Other doctors may assume we know more about our diseases than we do and fail to give us the same information they would give to “real” patients. We, on the other hand, often try to help them out by diagnosing ourselves, or minimizing our symptoms because we don’t want to bother them, or seem like complainers. Either approach impacts our care negatively.

But being a physician can be an advantage and it certainly was for Dr. Aronoff since she had friends who specialized in breast surgery, oncology (cancer), radiation therapy, and plastic surgery, all of which she would need. Recently out of training,  they had the most up to date knowledge in their fields. They helped her get to the right doctors, including getting appointments quickly.

But being a physician didn’t spare Dr. Aronoff pain from her mastectomy and the expanders (used to make room for eventual breast reconstruction). She still had to cope with  the debilitating side effects of chemo- fatigue, nausea,appetite loss, and hair loss- all the while caring for 3 small children.

A physician’s friends and family may assume that because we are healers, we are brave, strong, and can take care of ourselves. Dr. Aronoff found her closest friends understanding and supportive, and many went above and beyond, driving her to appointments, taking her kids to activities, and bringing meals.

“The naked truth”

When she lost her hair, she tried wearing wigs and found them uncomfortable so opted for scarves instead. This made her illness obvious, so when she went out in public people noticed her. She described becoming a “Synagogue Celebrity”, with people in her community posting sightings of her on Twitter because she “looked so good”.

“I smiled at praises..inside though, I was slipping, retreating into myself. But I didn’t dare let them see. With time and practice, I learned to navigate and embrace the dichotomy. I realized that projecting courage may not reveal the whole truth, but it’s not always a lie either.
Eventually, as the months passed, I regained my courage, I still had fight in me. So, I saved the naked truth for a handful of my trusted few.”

Daughter and doctor

Dr. Aronoff shared a poignant yet humorous moment celebrating Chanukah with her extended family while in the middle of chemotherapy that made her nauseated and weak.  She knew this would be the last time they would celebrate with her father, who had a terminal malignant brain tumor, so she made the 3 hour car trip to her parents’ home.

“In the glow of candlelight, I watched my father from the corner of my eye, burning his image onto my brain. I knew in my gut it would be the last year we’d celebrate together. We sang the ancient chant Hanerot Halalu about the miracle of the small jug of oil that burned for eight days. My family sure as hell needed some miracles these days too.”  

When the evening was over, they loaded the kids into the car for the long ride home.

“Alex (her husband) and I smiled at each other optimistically, anticipating a smooth ride back home with sleeping children. I hugged everyone goodbye and kissed my father lightly on the cheek. And just when I thought I was in the clear…(her daughter) Scarlett leaned over and vomited all over me!”

Who should read this book and why

Despite pieces of levity, this book is serious and hard hitting at times. Dr. Aronoff does not mince words, nor does she shy away from frank talk about intimate issues and raw emotions. If 4-letter words offend you, you may not want to read this book.

Dr. Aronoff’s book outlines the basics of diagnosis, staging, and treatment of breast cancer but I don’t think she intends it as a definitive patient guide. She does not imply that her experience is what other breast cancer patients should expect; rather she emphasizes that every patient’s journey may be different.

If you have had breast cancer, you may or may not identify with her experience. If you have not had cancer, her experience may motivate you to get a screening mammogram, explore your genetic risk, and consider what you can change in your lifestyle to decrease your  risk of getting breast cancer. (I’ll include some references for this at the end.)

“Dragon Slayer”

I won’t leave you hanging; this story has a happy ending. Dr. Aronoff is now disease free, and back working at her practice.She is a “survivor” but the threat of a recurrence will always loom over her. She may never know for sure if she is “cured”.

I invite you to visit her website to see photos of her before, during, and after treatment, and to read a sample chapter of her book.

Interlude-Women’s Cancer Stories

Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky talked to Dr. Aronoff for her podcast series Interlude. Listen to the interview at the above links.

Check out these breast cancer resources

Breast cancer screening

Understanding your breast cancer risk

Breast cancer is not exclusively a women’s disease, it happens to men also.

Risk factors for breast cancer in men

The Susan G. Komen Foundation offers this printable resource

Coping with a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Informacion en espanol- Cáncer de mama

Shop To Fight Breast Cancer! Every Purchase Helps Give Free Hospital Mammograms To Women In Need!

(This post contains affiliate links which, by paying a commission if used for a purchase, help fund this blog. )

sharing the HEART of health

Again thanks to Dr. Aronoff for giving me her book and sharing her story with all of us. I think we all have learned something that might help us or someone we know.

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

To start following Watercress Words , use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn, links are on the left side bar here and the Home page. Thanks so much.

                              Dr. Aletha 


True health stories-3 medical memoirs that share the HEART of health

I read lots of books for my own pleasure and to review for this blog. Although health/medicine can be a genre in itself, many different types of books and media can illustrate medical science.

Some are fiction including drama, comedy, and often science fiction. One I have reviewed here is

Say Goodbye for Now.

SAY GOODBYE FOR NOW by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Most however are non-fiction. One in this category that I reviewed relates medical history.

Pandemic by Sonia Shah


Medical writers often explain medical conditions, offer information on treatment options, give advice, and encourage healthy habits. One of these is

Mind Over Meds

MIND OVER MEDS- book cover

But as helpful and interesting as these are, I think the best medical books are those about real people who face real health challenges that are often life changing or even life threatening. There is nothing like experiencing a serious illness or injury to make you an expert about it.

And when the person with the problem writes or tells the story, we don’t just learn about it, we feel the emotions it provokes also.

Share your story

I have reviewed several of these “medical memoirs” here and will likely continue to do so. In a way, we are all living our own health journeys and many of you could offer reflections on how you and your family deal with your unique medical challenges.

If you are willing to share the perspectives you have gained through a health issue or medical experience, contact me; I would love to read it, and maybe share it here with my other readers. Your remarks may remain anonymous if you prefer.

Explore these “medical memoirs” with me.

The Best of Us

A Memoir

by Joyce Maynard

Ms. Maynard’s story opened with a  failed marriage/bad divorce saga with adult children torn between the two parents, persistent anger and bitterness, and attempts to ease the pain with a series of bad choices in lovers. Equally sad was her telling of a complicated  and ultimately failed adoption attempt.

Finally she and we can breath a sigh of relief when she meets a man and seems to have found true love at last. But that comes to an abrupt halt when he is diagnosed with cancer.

From then on she poignantly describes a life turned upside down as she enters new territory as a caregiver. As she relates how their lives changed, we the readers are changed also, learning to recognize what is truly important in life. As Ms. Maynard  writes,

“success, money, beauty, passion, adventure, possessions- have become immaterial. Breathing would be enough.”

Read this book if you want your assumptions about life and death to be challenged and changed. You may read an excerpt at this link

The Best of Us-Chapter 1

Tears of Salt

A Doctor’s Story

by Pietro Bartolo; Lidia Tilotta

Dr. Pietro Bartolo practices medicine on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean Sea. Lampedusa, known for its friendly people, sunny skies, pristine beaches, and turquoise waters famous for fishing, seems an idyllic place to live, work, and visit.

But for the past 20 years, Dr.Bartolo has cared for not just residents and tourists, but for hundreds of refugees- people who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean from northern Africa, fleeing poverty and political unrest. The lucky ones land on shore injured and sick. The unlucky ones wash ashore dead, having died en route or drowning after falling from a capsized or wrecked boat, sometimes only a few feet from shore.

In this memoir, Dr. Bartolo shares the stories of many of these people, giving them the names and faces that we don’t see watching news stories about the refugee crisis. He also shares his own life story of growing up on the island, leaving for medical school, and returning to raise a family and to practice medicine.

Dr. Bartolo’s story was also told in the documentary film FIRE AT SEA

He never expected to become the front-line help for hundreds of desperate people. With no specific training on how to manage an avalanche of desperate, sick, and injured refugees, and with little resources, he manages to put together a system for triaging, evaluating, and treating these people, then sending them on for more advanced medical care or to immigration centers in Europe.

For the less fortunate, he serves as medical examiner, to determine the cause of death for those who do not make it to Lampedusa alive; sometimes taking body parts to extract DNA to identify them, so families can be notified. He states he has never grown comfortable to this aspect of his job.

As a physician myself, I marvel at Dr. Bartolo’s caring and commitment to people who will never be able to repay him for his sacrifice. He approaches his work as a mission of mercy, and treats every person with the utmost respect, no matter their circumstance. Some of the people he treats become almost like family; he has even tried to adopt a couple of orphaned children but cannot due to legalities.

Dr. Bartolo’s story reads like a conversation. I think you will like him, and admire him for his dedication and selfless service.  His life should encourage all of us to consider what we can each do to lessen someone else’s suffering.

Follow this link to my review of

Love conquers fear-a memoir of hope

The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness and Peace

I received a free digital or paper copy of these books in return for posting a frank review on my blog and/or social media.

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explore the HEART of health with me

I appreciate all of you who follow this blog; there are numerous other blogs to choose from so I am honored you chose to spend some time here. A special welcome to all my new followers from this past month.

To start following Watercress Words , use this form to get an email notification of new posts . Please find and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn, links are on the left side bar here and the Home page. Thanks so much.

Please follow me on social media (links in the side bar). I look forward to sharing more information and inspiration to transform your health journey.

                              Dr. Aletha