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When an ER Doctor Battled Cancer During the Pandemic, She Turned to Hoag

At the height of the pandemic, people across the nation stood outside their homes, banging pots and pans and cheered to show their deep appreciation for health care workers.

Meanwhile, one of those health care workers sat in a recovery bed inside Hoag Family Cancer Center, quietly expressing gratitude as a patient herself.

An ER doctor who had been on the front lines of COVID-19 care, Sarah Korc, M.D., was driving home from a stressful morning shift when she received a call with her mammogram and ultrasound results. She had (been diagnosed with) triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that requires chemotherapy and surgery to fight.

It was a scary time to be a physician and a scary time to be a patient – and Sarah was suddenly both.

“When I was told I had cancer, I was so lost. I was a patient, I wasn’t a doctor,” she said.

Sarah, who works at a different hospital, and her husband Paul Korc, M.D., who is a gastroenterologist at Hoag, began emailing and texting their colleagues for recommendations for a breast surgeon.

“Dr. Khan’s name kept popping up on different people’s lists. If she’s popping up in recommendations from people who are also surgeons themselves, then that’s definitely where we’re going,” Sarah said. “And that’s how we chose Hoag.”

Dr. Sadia Khan is a fellowship trained oncoplastic breast surgeon, and the director of Integrative Breast Oncology at Hoag. To Sarah, those credentials were important. But in that moment, when the world was full of uncertainty and her own life was turned upside down, more important than Dr. Khan’s pedigree was her compassion.

“I never felt like a number,” she said. “I was not a statistic.”

Sarah is the mother of three boys, and Dr. Khan was pregnant with her first child. The two bonded over being doctors and patients during this unprecedented moment in history.

“I was coaching her through being a cancer patient, and she was coaching me on how to be a new mom,” Dr. Khan said. “It was very scary. Being pregnant at that time was horrible, and I know that for my patients, that time was so isolating.”

Dr. Khan and her husband welcomed baby Zain, who arrived three weeks early, but she came in during her maternity leave to perform Sarah’s surgery. Dr. Khan’s dedication, and the unique moment of history that these two doctors shared, helped Sarah feel supported during her cancer care.

“My breast surgeon saw me as an individual, with children, who is a physician. My plastic surgeon did the same thing,” she said. “The nurses there at the infusion center, they held my hand, they cried with me. They knew I was scared, and they made it OK. I will never forget their kindness.”

Sarah faced two existential threats, nearly simultaneously. As an ER physician, Sarah had been isolating from her three young sons and her husband, never knowing if she was going to develop COVID-19. As a patient, she fought a highly aggressive form of cancer, nearly alone, as visitors were kept out of the hospital during the pandemic.

She credits the care and support she received at Hoag for helping her beat her battle. Today, Sarah is 100% cancer free.

“Cancer changes everything. It comes in and disrupts the routine of your life. It makes you want to fight to live,” she said. “I feel so blessed. Hoag has been such an amazing place to receive care.”

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