“I get to address the whole person and I get to cut out the cancer, “ says Dr. Monique Gary, “and that makes me feel pretty privileged.“
Dr. Monique Gary is a breast cancer surgeon and director of the cancer program at Grand View Health in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. While much of her work takes place with the delicate use of a scalpel and state of the art medical technology, she believes her most important efforts happens outside of a hospital setting.
“The third question that patients ask me after, am I going to die and do I need chemotherapy is: “how can I live a more holistic, healthy life?”, she says.
Part of the answer lives at Still Rise Farm— 39 acres of farmland Dr. Gary purchased in Perkasie, Pennsylvania about a year ago. But it’s not just any old farm. The land has fruit trees, a lodge, horse stables, a fresh water pond stocked with fish, a pool and a gorgeous view. The farm’s main crop is cancer wellness and last October, Dr. Gary hosted her first retreat for 12 breast cancer survivors/patients.
“I felt so much love and I felt so much gratitude to be able to offer this to women,” she says.
“As breast cancer survivors, we know about treatment,” says Robin Evans, who survived a stage four metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2008. “What [we] don’t know about is after the treatment comes, it’s time to heal and healing is a full time job.”
Evans, is a breast cancer and clinical studies advocate. She picked up the mantel after learning that Black women like her are 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than women of other races. It was on the advocacy trail that she met Dr. Gary and they became friends.
“Dr. Gary is amazing,” says Evans, who notes that Dr. Gary is not her doctor. “She has a heart of gold.”
Evans says she learned about Dr. Gary’s vision for Still Rise Farm and when she got the invite to come and share with the women at the retreat she jumped at the opportunity.
“It was a weekend of fellowship and healing,” says Evans, “It was everything from yoga to meditation walks through the park. [Dr. Gary even] hired people to do massages in the barn for the entire three days.”
Evans says there were cooking demonstrations and space for the women to just breathe.
“Not often, especially if you live in the city, do you have the opportunity to come out and reconnect with nature and peacefulness,” says Evans, “we did things like walk through the forest and reconnect with the trees.”
While the effort is still in its infancy, it is a first step toward a larger vision of creating an incubator for cancer wellness.
“I have a lot of big dreams, and I always tell my students, if your dreams aren’t scaring you, they’re not big enough,” says Gary.
And this one- is frightening. But “Dr. Mo” as she’s called by her patients, is confident it will happened. After all, she was destined to become a cancer doctor.
“I say cancer chose me…this job chose me,” she says. “But it picked the wrong one because, you know, they started it, but I’m going to finish it.”
A Philadelphia native, Dr. Gary’s journey started at age 7, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“She was 29 with two girls, and all we knew at the time was that she was really sick,” says Gary, “she died within the year.”
Just a few years later, Gary’s grandmother, Margaret, who was helping to raise her alongside her grandfather, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Miss Margaret survived, only be be diagnosed with Breast cancer again a few years later.
“Watching her go through that experience, watching her try to figure out what doctors were the best doctors and where to go and how to make an appointment,” she says, “it impacts everything I do in the way I run my program.”
Dr. Gary does outreach, with check ins on popular radio program, she takes questions on BlackDoctor.org, hosts a podcast “The Doctor is in” and sits on panels sharing information on breast cancer prevention and wellness. Still Rise Farm is a continuation of that outreach.
“When a person gets diagnosed with cancer, I am then the person that helps them to get to a better state of wellness,” says Dr. Gary, “I see what I’m doing as a calling and as a moral imperative. Like, this is what I’m here for.”
She believes her work was predestined and all of her experiences led her to where she is today. For example, Dr. Gary’s hand bear scars from a car accident in college. She says she was ejected from a vehicle, lost nails and skin on several fingers, with three fingers on her dominate hand filleted.
“I woke up in the ambulance and though- am I going to be able to use his hand? Am I going to be able to be a surgeon after this,” says Dr. Gary.
She learned to write with her non-dominant hand and healing began. Today, she’s not just a breast cancer surgeon, the Girls High grad’s work has expanded beyond breast cancer. She teaches at multiple medical schools— and is now taking what she has learned about healing to others battling the very thing she fights against- cancer.
“Service is the rent we pay to humanity to be here,” says Dr. Gary, “and so I view it as my contribution and my rent to the universe and to the world and for, you know, for gratitude, for God letting me be here and to become these things.”
“And that’s why I nominated her,” says Evans, “Dr. Gary is a good soul because she thinks outside of herself.”
Check out Dr. Gary’s story on You Oughta Know on WHYY-TV 12 this Friday at 7pm.
If you know someone who has performed an act of kindness whether it be big or small and you think they serve as an example of compassion, generosity and service, tell us your story by nominating your person at whyy.org/goodsouls.