Oncologist Nitesh N. Paryani has a personal connection to cancer, one that shaped his decision to become a doctor who treats cancer. This is his story.
For my family, cancer is personal.
If you read my article on breast cancer screening in the Times-Union on Sept. 16, you might think this comes from the fact that my family has been treating cancer patients in Jacksonville for three generations, since 1964. Although that influenced my decision to become a cancer doctor, it’s not why cancer is personal in my family.
It’s personal because like many American families, cancer has impacted us on an individual level.
My grandfather, Bhojraj Paryani, was one of the first cancer doctors in Jacksonville. He was diagnosed with a rare spinal tumor in 1986 and died not long after, at age 62.
It is possible he contracted the disease as a result of his exposure to radiation while working as a cancer doctor. Ironically, not only was he killed by the very same disease he spent his entire life fighting, but he likely was struck by the disease because of his commitment to helping others. Back then, there weren’t as many safety provisions as we have today to ensure that the doctors, nurses and technicians treating cancer patients are not unnecessarily exposed to radiation.
My grandfather was not the first scientist to fall victim to exposure to radioactive materials. The most famous scientist to die from occupational exposure to radiation was two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, the renowned Polish scientist who pioneered radiation research in the late 1800s.
Along with her husband, Pierre, she laid the groundwork for the modern use of radiation to treat cancer and other conditions. Like many scientists in her era, she had no idea how toxic radiation could be when uncontrolled. Madam Curie even used to carry vials of highly radioactive radium in her lab coat. In fact, her exposure to radiation was so high that today her journals, papers and even her cookbook are considered unsafe because of their high level of radioactivity. They are kept in a lead-lined box and, if you want to view them, you have to wear a protective suit!
Unfortunately, I never really got to know my grandfather because I was very young when he passed away. But hearing the stories from my parents and family about his dedication to taking care of cancer patients, as well as the suffering he experienced when diagnosed with the disease himself, had a profound impact on me as a child.
Nevertheless, I had never really thought much about becoming a doctor myself. I was always good at science, but it never really felt like a calling to me. When I was in middle school, however, something happened that changed my perspective.
Cancer became personal again.
Growing up, I was very close with my extended family. At one point, all of my dad’s four brothers and sisters, as well as my grandmother, lived in the same neighborhood in Jacksonville. My cousins were like brothers and sisters – we could walk to each other’s houses, we all went to the same school and we had a big family dinner once a week (We had to eat in shifts because there wasn’t enough space at the table! I somehow always managed to sneak into the first shift).
But if living so close to each other wasn’t enough, several of my dad’s siblings even worked together. My dad’s younger brother, Shyam Paryani, became a cancer doctor and followed in his father’s footsteps; my dad’s younger sister, Rakhee Hemrajani, became the administrative manager for the practice, helping found the Williams Cancer Center at Baptist Hospital.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 44, it took us all by surprise. Yet again, another member of the family who had dedicated their life to helping in the fight against cancer became a fighter themselves.
Unfortunately, my aunt had a very aggressive type of breast cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease after a long and difficult struggle. Despite going through surgery, radiation and rounds of chemotherapy – losing her hair, getting sick and feeling weak – she never lost her positive attitude and never let her daughters, nieces and nephews see the cracks in her armor.
As a teenager, my aunt’s passing left me with a lot of questions. How could this have been possible? My uncle, her brother, had trained at one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. It just didn’t seem right that someone so young would be taken from us like this – especially someone who had spent her own life trying to help cancer patients. It didn’t seem fair.
At the time, I was too young to realize a very simple truth:
Cancer isn’t fair.
Cancer doesn’t care whether you’re white or black, rich or poor.
It doesn’t care whether you’ve spent your life helping people, or if you’re a convicted felon.
It doesn’t care if you eat healthy every day, exercise and don’t smoke or drink.
It doesn’t care if you have kids who depend on you and a family who loves you.
In reality, cancer isn’t personal at all. It simply doesn’t care.
But that didn’t stop me from taking it personally. I couldn’t help but ask: What could I do to fight this disease that had impacted my family on so many levels? How could I join the fight against cancer?
Fortunately, there was a pretty easy answer and well laid-out path in front of me: Go to medical school, become a doctor and start curing cancer patients.
But that all seemed like a lot of work (wait … you want me to go to school for 13 years after high school? Are you crazy?!).
So, instead, I enrolled as a freshman at Princeton University and decided to study politics. That seemed more fun, and the prospect of getting a job before I turned 30 was exciting.
The job I got after graduating was amazing – working as a health care management consultant at a high-powered firm on the famous K Street in Washington, D.C. As a consultant, I got to live in our nation’s capital and travel across the country, helping health care companies improve their business performance.
Still, in the back of my mind, the question was there: How can I join the fight against cancer, the disease that had become so personal to my family?
The rest, as they say, is history.
I embarked upon that long path to becoming a doctor, spending countless hours studying the human body and its ailments as a medical student. Four years went by in the blink of an eye (time flies when you’re having fun, but it also flies when you’re working nonstop!).
With my medical degree in hand, I embarked upon a five-year residency at the Mayo Clinic, excited to be able to take care of cancer patients in the city that raised me. Somewhere through the late nights on call, weekends taking care of patients in the hospital and emotional challenges that accompanied guiding patients through what is undoubtedly the most difficult time in their lives, I had finally answered that question that arose when I was in middle school.
I had finally found my role in the fight against cancer.
Today, I am honored to be able to continue the fight against cancer as a doctor with the Florida Radiation Oncology Group (FROG), the very group that my grandfather founded almost 60 years ago.
I am proud to fight this vicious disease alongside my family, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the fight against cancer as well. My aunt, Kavita Jhamnani, works for FROG. Her husband, Das, is an oral surgeon. Sharon Paryani, another aunt, is a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Nemours Specialty Clinic. Three of my cousins are internal medicine physicians. My wife, Mara Cvejic, is an adult and pediatric sleep medicine physician. And finally, mother serves as the billing manager for FROG.
For us, cancer will always be personal.
Nitesh Paryani is a third-generation radiation oncologist practicing in Jacksonville and Jacksonville Beach. He is on the board of directors for the Duval County Medical Society.