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Health disparities hit home, spur quest for better care

News Center | October 30, 2013

Dr. Marvella FordDr. Marvella Ford, a breast cancer survivor, takes addressing health disparities very personally.
Sarah Pack 

I have lost several relatives to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. In fact, I never knew any of my grandparents; they all passed away before I was born. My mother passed away when I was 36 years old and my father, who lived with me during his last year of life, passed away the year I turned 40. 

Those experiences have helped fuel my passion to find solutions to the poor health outcomes that are experienced by so many families. I believe that the solutions to these problems will come from many sources: the health care system, physicians, and patients/community members. To effect change, interventions on all of these levels are needed.

As a two-time breast cancer survivor, my experiences in the diagnosis and treatment process have helped me to view my research as a patient, as well as a researcher. The research questions that I ask in the future will be informed by these experiences.  We are losing too many people to cancer whose deaths could have been prevented or significantly delayed through early detection. The interventions that my colleagues and I are developing could help reduce the number of cancer deaths, improve the quality of life of cancer survivors, and allow family members more time to spend with each other.

The following are life lessons I’ve learned.


To be Resolute. That is how I felt when I received a diagnosis in April 2013 confirming that my Stage 0 breast cancer had returned. I was relieved to know that the cancer recurrence was diagnosed at such an early stage, thanks to early detection via digital mammography. The resolute feeling came from knowing that the best course of treatment was mastectomy, given prior radiation therapy to the same breast after the initial cancer diagnosis in 2008. I was eager to remove the source of the cancer in my body, and unlike some body parts, a breast can be more easily replicated during reconstruction surgery.

To be Thankful. That is how I felt on the day of the surgery on May 24, 2013, when at least 10 friends and church family members arrived at the MUSC hospital at 6 in the morning. My church deacon and his wife, Deacon Levy and Sister Shirley Berry, took on the role of family members. They remained in the waiting room during the 9 hours of surgery and relayed messages from the doctors to my family who live in distant parts of the U.S. They continued to visit me in the hospital and their visits lifted my spirit. Their thoughtfulness and kindness were beyond my comprehension. Another friend, who chided me for saying that I would walk to the hospital on the day of the surgery and picked me up at 5 a.m. that day, made me feel very blessed and cherished. My colleague, Ms. Dana Burshell, coordinated a food preparation and delivery schedule with my MUSC co-workers. It was a blessing to have been given such a wide variety of healthy foods when I needed them the most. Another staff member, Ms. Tonya Hazelton, coordinated our summer undergraduate student research program for the first time by herself, and she did a marvelous job, easing my mind about the students.

To be Humble. I felt completely unworthy of this outpouring of love and support. For example, one of my friends went to my condo several times while I was in the hospital and changed the litter boxes of my two cats so my home would smell fresh upon my return from the hospital. Another friend, who recently completed chemotherapy for a breast cancer diagnosis, picked up my cousin Sarah from the airport when she arrived in Charleston from her home in Delaware.

To be Open to Love. As noted, my cousin Sarah came from Delaware to spend two weeks with me after I was released from my eight-day hospital stay following the surgery. It was wonderful to reminisce with her about our late parents and other family members. We shared warm memories. Other friends came from Michigan and Maryland to visit and bring good cheer. Numerous members of my church called and made personal visits. Even former church members who are now members of other churches, such as Deacon and Sister McCants, Deacon and Sister Goodson, and Deacon and Sister Dancy, played a major role in my recovery. I received almost 100 cards from friends at MUSC and from around the country, as well as several floral arrangements. My colleagues even brought gifts for my two cats when they came to visit.

To Stay Connected and Make People Feel Valued. The director of the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, Dr. Andrew S. Kraft, and his administrator, Anita Harrison, along with several other MUSC and community leaders, including Dr. Etta Pisano, Dr. Sabra Slaughter, Tracey Smith, Dr. Anthony J. Alberg, Dr. Chanita Hughes-Halbert, Dr. Debbie C. Bryant, Dr. Ida Spruill, Dr. Pam Ferguson, Dr. Leonard Davis and his wife, Norma Davis, the Reverend Rossilind Daniels, Trudy Grant, Mary Greer, and my Pastor, the Reverend Nelson B. Rivers, III, visited me while I was in the hospital and after my return home. Their visits made me feel unforgotten and highly valued.

To Draw on the Strength of Community. For someone who lives alone with no biological family members in the state, I’ve never once felt alone in my fight against cancer. My community is great and it is stronger than I could ever be alone.

To Draw on Blessings from God. I truly felt God’s presence before the surgery and during the recovery period. He gave many blessings during this time period, including news of papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals and an NIH grant that was funded. These were reminders that “His grace is sufficient; for His strength is made perfect in (our) weakness.”

To Take Time to Reflect. During my recovery period, I learned sad news about a friend in Colorado. When she felt the first breast lump a few years ago, her doctor told her that “it didn’t feel like a malignant breast tumor” and did not order a mammogram for her. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer was at an advanced stage. It returned during my recovery and she passed away within weeks, prior to my return to work. She left behind a young son and a grieving family. I wrote this poem in memory of her:

Dandelion Fluff
Floating gently on the currents of the wind
 Sailing, soaring through the light-filled air
 Ephemeral, translucent
 So your spirit travels
  On its way to God's eternal presence

Editor's Note: Inside Track is a periodic column by MUSC faculty and staff about the intersection of health matters and our lives. Dr. Marvella Ford is associate director of cancer disparities in Hollings Cancer Center. To see other Inside Track columns, visit this page. 



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