Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations BMJ Confidential

Deanna Attai: Operation Chocolate

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j5072 (Published 08 November 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j5072

Biography

Deanna Attai, 53, is a breast surgeon in Los Angeles who puts patient empowerment high on her priority list. Born to a New York medical family, she was educated at Vassar College and Georgetown University and practised in Virginia for five years before moving west in 1999. She was president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons during 2015-16 and is assistant clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. Patient communication, she says, is “one of the joys of breast surgery and part of what drew me to the field.” She co-moderates Breast Cancer Social Media, a Twitter based breast cancer support group.

What was your earliest ambition?

I thought that the best job in the world was professional athlete. Unfortunately, I wasn’t good enough at any sport. However, I was good at science, and I was drawn to medicine probably because of my father’s influence. Once I got to medical school, surgery was the only specialty that really captivated me.

What was your best career move?

After four years at a large group practice in Washington, DC, I moved across the country to Los Angeles to join a small group general surgery practice. I didn’t know anyone in LA, and I moved out there alone. After 18 months I left that practice, went out on my own, and then transitioned from general surgery to a breast-only practice. Looking back, I don’t know how I took those leaps—I was pretty fearless back then.

What was the worst mistake in your career?

Not focusing enough on my own health, especially after I went into solo practice.

How is your work-life balance?

“Balance” implies that everything is moving along smoothly. In reality it’s a very active process, requiring constant adjustments. I learned, the hard way, to respect my limits. I’m now fiercely protective of my free time: I say “no” more often, and I say it without guilt.

How do you keep fit and healthy?

Moderate exercise, gardening, and playing with my kittens. I’m in bed by 9 pm most nights. I follow a (mostly) healthy, balanced, plant based diet. I do consider regular doses of chocolate critical to my health, although this makes it harder to stay fit.

What do you wish that you had known when you were younger?

That it would all work out in the end. I shouldn’t have stressed so much.

Do doctors get paid enough?

It very much depends on specialty and practice setting. On balance, yes, but those in private practice can struggle.

To whom would you most like to apologise?

My staff. They bend over backwards for me and for our patients, and I don’t always let them know how appreciated they are. Shout out to Maggie, Ana, and Laura!

What do you usually wear to work?

Scrubs. I like to be comfortable.

Which living doctor do you most admire, and why?

My father, who is a retired cardiac surgeon. As a high school student I accompanied him to the operating room, my first exposure to surgery. Tagging along with him on hospital rounds showed me a completely different side of him, and his gentle way with patients has been an inspiration.

What is the worst job you have done?

During a college summer break I worked as a waitress at an all-night restaurant—the type of place people go when they’re drunk and need food at 2 am. That was interesting.

What single unheralded change has made the most difference in your field in your lifetime?

The field of breast surgery and breast oncology has progressed thanks to researchers who design innovative and forward thinking clinical trials and the courageous patients who participate in these studies. Clinical trial participants don’t get nearly enough thanks.

What new technology or development are you most looking forward to?

Non-operative ablative therapy shows promise for selected patients. Ongoing studies are evaluating whether surgery can be eliminated in patients who exhibit an apparent complete response to neoadjuvant therapy. It may sound strange for a surgeon to look forward to the day when we operate less, but there you have it.

What book should every doctor read?

It’s very important that physicians know the history of the disease they’re treating: you can’t have a good appreciation of where we are until you understand how we got here. One of the best books I’ve read about the history of breast cancer is Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer and History by James S Olson. Find the book that captures the history of your specialty.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Chocolate and sleep. And I’ve learned not to feel guilty about either of them: they’re necessities.

Where are or when were you happiest?

Where I am right now. I’m very content with my current life and situation.

What television programmes do you like?

As kids we weren’t allowed to watch typical sitcoms or other mindless shows, so I never developed a taste for those. I’m an NBA basketball fan, so I love the halftime and post-game shows. And I do watch House Hunters (that one should probably go under “guilty pleasure”).

What personal ambition do you still have?

I go back and forth about writing a book: right now it’s a low priority, but that could change overnight. I’d like to learn to cook well—what I do every night is pretty basic. But I’m catching my breath after some major professional milestones and changes over the past few years. The next adventure will come when I’m ready, and that could be tomorrow.

Summarise your personality in three words

Practical, focused, and empathetic, with a healthy side of New York sarcasm.

What is your pet hate?

People who don’t keep their word or who have hidden agendas. Just be honest.

What would be on the menu for your last supper?

Chocolate fudge brownies with vanilla ice cream.

What poem, song, or passage of prose would you like mourners at your funeral to hear?

I don’t think that I want a funeral. People may or may not want to mourn, but I don’t want a big show. Go out with some friends for wine and chocolate. Plant something. Adopt a kitten or a puppy.

Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare?

A dream, but I’m not ready for it just yet.

If you weren’t in your present position what would you be doing instead?

Rescuing stray kittens and tending to an organic vegetable farm.

View Abstract

Log in

Log in through your institution

Subscribe

* For online subscription