Rochelle Williams-Belizaire

I immigrated to the United States from Kingston, Jamaica. Boston, Massachusetts is considered home for me. I grew up in a family that was very quiet on the outside, but a fun hilarious ride inside our home. I absolutely love to decorate, laugh, and dance. My life was very balanced. My parents instilled hard work and the importance of caring for others. I often witnessed my parents making very simple gestures that even at a young age I knew had a huge impact on another person. As children my siblings and I often volunteered at church, at school, and with organizations focused on helping fellow Jamaicans in America and in Jamaica.

For me, I naturally equated caring for others as someone in the medical field. During my college years I began to learn about health disparities, how it impacted many people with my similar background, and I pursued studies in politics and community health with a planned interest in health policy.

That changed. My first job was at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I was blessed to work with a team of doctors that took me on the floor with them, handed textbooks for my coworkers and I to read and study cancer, quizzed us, and allowed us to shadow them in patient exam rooms. It was a rewarding time and allowed me to determine I wanted to be more involved in the cutting-edge science and research that can bring hope to cancer patients in the form of treatment options.

It was my first exposure to clinical trials and clinical research. It is my love for helping others, the work ethic my parents instilled in me, my drive for learning all there is to know about clinical trial operations, but most importantly sharing what I have learned with underserved communities that affords me the opportunity to be the Assistant Director, Research Collaborations for the Precision Oncology program at the Knight Cancer Institute.

 I have a certain interest in breast cancer as a woman, a woman who knows cancer does not discriminate, a woman who has friends who thankfully are all survivors of breast cancer, a woman who knows there are too many grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, brothers, fathers, uncles and many others who are not as fortunate. A woman who understands more must be done.

My husband is Haitian. His mother still lives in Haiti. The same year we were to get married; Haiti was hit with the most devastating earthquake to date a few months before our wedding. My mother-in-law never complained. She did not complain about losing her home, about rocks falling on her and breaking her knee, the struggle to be an advocate for herself to get the proper care.  My husband takes care of our mom in any way he can. That includes covering medical expenses. We recently learned that money we were sending to Haiti was not simply to cover simple medication and her nursing assistant – it was to cover her care as an oncology patient. During our mom’s work up, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Shocked, appalled, frustrated we asked why she never told us. She said she did not want to hurt or worry us. Even during her diagnosis, she is thinking of others. She is caring for others. She is not the only person living with breast cancer that has this amazing spirit. I have a high school friend who is a breast cancer survivor, working mom, loving wife, and care provider for three adorable boys. She runs races, conquers her job, and lives life to the fullest. How can I not be invested? How can I not be persistent? I am fortunate to not have breast cancer – I need to get to work and support these amazing women in any way that I can.

In 2014, mainly at the need to not spend another freezing winter in Boston, but also always eager to improve myself and learn from the best, I chose to pursue a career at a cancer institute that had been consistently ranked #1 for cancer care by U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Hospitals” survey. Dr. Gordon Mills, at the time, co-led a research program supported by philanthropic donors, federal grants, and additional funding mechanisms with the intentional goal of allowing researchers on the brink of cutting edge research to take the next necessary step forward in their work towards a cure for cancer.

Dr. Mills is a leader that pushes you to achieve your personal best, and he completely and transparently supports you during your career development. Most integral to our working relationship is that Dr. Mills not only teaches but he is open to learning and allowing everyone to have a fair seat at the table. Dr. Mills moved his research to the Knight Cancer Institute and leads the SMMART TM program. The mission of the SMMARTTM program is to find durable responses with high quality of life. The Knight Cancer Institute with its state-of-the-art equipment and researchers are proven the only institute in the nation that can operationalize the dynamic SMMARTTM program. Dr. Mills and I are working together to change the world. Dr. Mills is aggressively working together with many to identify novel treatment recommendations, and techniques to learn more about the evolving behavior of cancer. I work to build academic to academic internal and external collaborations. The idea here is to take our knowledge, share it with others to effectively change the world. We are having fun doing it. Dr. Mills has an open door policy, and a deep love and conviction for what he is doing – it encourages me to push harder, work harder, and have a great time.

 Breast Cancer research is the reason we have Survivorship Conferences and Workshops. At one point a treatment regimen was simply an experiment, now it is an FDA approved drug that has helped achieve response against a growing breast cancer. At one point, research taught us the importance of lifestyle and mental health as precursors to cancer and integral to a person’s treatment. We do not conquer cancer without cancer research.

Care leads to better research. You must care about your research if you are to be successful. You must care about the cancer patient if you are to be successful. The cancer patient that volunteers to be part of research must be provided unprecedented care towards medical treatment, home life, work life, etc. For example, I discussed earlier the mission of the SMMARTTM program to change the world by spreading our knowledge and our program. That includes allowing as many to partake on a clinical trial that is part of the SMMARTTM program. In response, we are building clinical trial designs that allow data and samples to travel to OHSU main campus for in depth analysis while the patient stays home with the support of their local care team.

 We enjoy the exciting work of Komen Oregon & SW Washington, and will continue to team up with them to spread the word, educate, learn from the community, and provide our treatment program opportunities.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge about yourself and your family is significant for proper breast health. No one person is the exact same. Know about yourself so your physician team can build a treatment plan that speaks to you, that directly helps you. The first step is to conduct breast self-exams, determine if you qualify for annual mammograms. Know that times are very different in America when it comes to clinical trials. There are now federal mandates to ensure all people enrolled on a clinical trial are treated fairly, and the clinical trial must prove that the benefits outweigh the harm by an independent federal review. Finally, clinical trials have evolved to personalized medicine in the landscape of Precision Oncology. Learn more. Learn more about yourself, for you, your current family, and next generations.

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