Trust In Your Care Team

My cancer posse is comprised of some of the best folks—kith and kin from around the country who rallied in April 2022 when I was first diagnosed with synchronous cervical and uterine cancers. Throughout this unchartered journey, my husband, married daughter in Mississippi and son in Massachusetts have each been effective posse leaders, giving me strength for the road, dispensing loving advice (whether solicited or not!) and serving as liaisons for meal trains, care packages and other generous support. They truly have been my first line of defense.

Dr. Mark and Doris

But, when I look back on this odyssey, I must admit that any success along this journey was determined by my relationship with the principal guide on this trip: my gynecologic oncologist. Captain of my medical team, he was instrumental in shepherding me through the cancer maze: treatment plans; laboratory results; side effects; scans. How blessed I am to have this particular medical professional on my posse.

Dr. Jaron Mark was referred to me after the biopsy and diagnoses. I was slightly surprised at our first consultation. The white-coated doctor who walked in and shook my hand did not appear much older than my son. A soft-spoken but confident young Black man, I was rather pleased that my oncologist would look like me, but I needed to be assured that he was ready for THIS middle-aged Black woman (who has occasionally been deemed a crusty old broad) as a patient. I recall one of the comments I made to him that day to let him understand my mind-set: “Doctor, I plan to celebrate my 100th birthday, and you’re going to help me get there!”  

He looked somewhat taken aback, but then recovered well, smiled and nodded. He seemed up for the challenge.

I was also impressed when he shared that he is an alumnus of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Established in 1876, Meharry was the only medical school to admit Blacks in the South and was the training ground for generations of Black doctors. As a graduate of an historically Black institution in Ohio myself, I always feel a special bond with other such alumni. His esteem was elevated further in my eyes when I discovered he was in practice with his father. Fighting cancer is very much the family business, I suppose.

The true value of our relationship was revealed during those early months of treatment. My oncologist carefully explained every step along the road, using lay terms to describe complicated procedures. He made certain to discuss side effects while also providing realistic possibilities. He never sugar-coated information, yet maintained an optimistic demeanor. And he was proactive. Although my cervical malignancy was Stage 3b1, he informed me that the Stage 1A uterine cancer was far more aggressive and deadly. He advised that I start chemotherapy immediately after brachytherapy, delaying a scheduled family vacation to Boston. When I protested, he very gently but firmly reminded me of the need to stall the progression of the uterine serous cells. He did not arrogantly reprimand me or condescend that he was the expert and I a mere patient; he actually appeared apologetic and concerned that I have all the facts to make an informed decision (the vacation was cancelled). 

Doris and her Radiology team at the START Center 

I ended chemotherapy on January 9, 2023. A scan later that month indicated no evidence of disease. However, by June I began experiencing digestive disturbances, abdominal discomfort and appetite loss. A further scan indicated recurrence of the uterine cancer in the peritoneum. My oncologist booked me for an immediate consultation and we discussed a plan of action that included oral chemotherapy and immunotherapy. But we also discussed a “Plan B” if the desired results were not achieved. I appreciated that he did not advise repeating the treatment plan that did not work the first time. And, if the medicine still fails to eradicate the cancer cells, he does not want to waste precious time; after 3-4 infusions of immunotherapy, he will order a scan to determine effectiveness. If there are no positive results, I will then take the clinical trial route. 

I now understand why so many patients complain about the medical attention (or lack thereof) received from too many doctors and nurses. From the first meeting, I sensed that my young oncologist translated my verbal and nonverbal messages accurately. He was respectful and attentive and I reciprocated the same. Even though I was an entire generation or two ahead of him, he did not patronize or minimize. He answered every question asked, even those posed by my family members. Also importantly, his staff clearly was expected to behave similarly. When a nurse bungled some insurance issues and miscommunicated with me during the first months of treatment, I expressed my displeasure to the doctor and they were no longer employed there at my next appointment.  

When Dr. Mark shook my hand at the end of our consultation last month, he looked me squarely in the eyes, smiled and shared words of encouragement that helped boost my spirits. In that moment, an unspoken bond was reaffirmed: he was not only my doctor, but a trusted fellow combatant in this war against my own cells, a posse member who continues to accompany me up hills and down valleys along the way. I could not ask for better!

A sixth generation Texan from San Antonio, Doris Helene White earned a B.A. from Central State University in Ohio (an historically black institution) and a juris doctorate from Boston University School of Law. Her career in the government sector as a Massachusetts trial attorney reaffirmed her commitment to an equitable legal system. Her husband Steven Soares, daughter Dr. Leigh Soares and son Steven Cooper Soares lead the best “cancer posse” in the galaxy! 

Blank Verses, Short Stories, and Other Musings

Each night, I climb into bed, prop up on my red, corduroy reading pillow that has followed me from college all those decades ago and slowly open a small, bound book. Pen in hand, I take a deep breath and begin a scribbled conversation that has kept me sane since my April diagnosis of synchronous cervical and uterine cancers. That book, this pen, those words are my free therapy. And I am better for them.

The magic of words was made plain to me in childhood. I taught myself to type on Mom’s gunmetal gray, Royal Underwood typewriter, pecking away on two fingers to churn out a neighborhood newsletter. Adolescence brought dreams of growing up to study Creative Writing, joining a writers’ colony in the Vermont woods and becoming the next Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks…you see where this is going? Well, as too often happens, adulthood altered those dreams, and this English Literature major became a government trial lawyer in Massachusetts—still using words to shrewdly sway jurors and to sharply skewer opponents—but I always maintained a growing collection of blank verse, short stories, and other musings that one day could be shared with somebody. Anybody.

Doris’s cancer journal

Perhaps all that explains why one of the first errands I made immediately after my diagnosis was a search for the right journal to house my feelings—all the scary, happy, and unnamed things that would come my way along this journey. This vessel could not be flimsy or cheesy. No, buddy. This word-keeper had to be worthy of the emotions that would leak out onto its pages. Here is where I would explain how this “cancer thang” discombobulated us all. 

I had always proclaimed that I planned to blow out candles at my centennial birthday party. How could the threat of mortality come knocking at my door now, when my married daughter in Mississippi (Lord help us) needed me after giving birth to our first grandchild in March? And my son was 2,000 miles away in the Boston area, having just survived a divorce and a torn Achilles tendon. He had a hard time handling my illness. My husband was trying mightily to cope with his own anxieties about my health and all the myths and stigmas associated with cancer. This was way too much for a cheap, lightweight notebook. Only a special book could cradle those complicated realities.

My chosen, pink pen pal has never failed me. Its sturdy pages have given me space to vent about the things it has been hard to articulate to folks: the chest port that feels reminiscent of alien abduction anecdotes; the tutorial on dilator use that made the nursing assistant blush; the way I could discern the texture of food (even water), yet not its taste; the exhilarating freedom of a shaved head displayed to all the world. And it has let me weep onto its cream-tinted pages, wrinkled testament to the overwhelming sadness that comes with this journey at the oddest times. 

This journal is so much more than frequently illegible cursive words. No, these pages are quite often a battle cry, this warrior’s call to arms against the most unexpected enemy: her own cells. These pages are like an old-timey, gutbucket, blues chart from backwoods juke joint—a full-throated, belly-wail of agony and joy, growled by one who knows the score (literally and figuratively) and ain’t afraid to tell you all about it. And, always, always, that hard-cover book is my hymnal, sketching lines of praise to Him in Whose armor I outfit myself every day. This little unassuming book contains uniquely metered lyrics of love and faith and strength. 

I will write my way out of this Egypt. The inked lines will chart the path to my Red Sea….

A sixth generation Texan from San Antonio, Doris Helene White earned a B.A. from Central State University in Ohio (an historically black institution) and a juris doctorate from Boston University School of Law. Her career in the government sector as a Massachusetts trial attorney reaffirmed her commitment to an equitable legal system. Retired in 2014, Doris returned home, where she indulged a passion for writing, became an amateur advocate for the history of African Americans in these United States and continued active affiliation with San Antonio Black Lawyers Association, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Jack and Jill of America, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and other community organizations. Her husband Steven Soares, daughter Dr. Leigh Soares and son Steven Cooper Soares lead the best “cancer posse” in the galaxy!