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Yavette Gray: Cancer survivor raises cancer awareness for research and emotional support

By Kerry Goff

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Oncology Center of Excellence has launched the inaugural National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week June 17–23 to increase cancer awareness in one of the most vulnerable segments of the U.S. population.

The St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center's outreach efforts include the discussion of how the awareness week can facilitate participation in research.

Yavette Gray, of St. Jude Clinical Trials Administration

Yavette Gray, of St. Jude Clinical Trials Administration, adopted a fighting spirit in a photo taken on the morning of her surgery

Yavette Gray, a project manager in Clinical Trials Operations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is familiar with firsts. Part of her job is to help make clinical trials run smoothly so researchers can develop new, innovative treatments for children, but she also has her own experience being a first in an innovative cancer treatment.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2018, Gray agreed to be one of the first to receive intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women in March of 2019. The procedure delivers a concentrated dose of radiation during lumpectomy and eliminates additional treatment after surgery.

Initially, she opted to undergo a full mastectomy with reconstruction, but she was informed of her eligibility for IORT and reconsidered.

“After second opinions and a lot of research, I decided to have a partial mastectomy with IORT, which also lessened the time I would have to miss work or to recover from a series of radiation treatments,” she said.


Knowledge leads to self-empowerment

Although Gray trusted her caregivers, she did her own research once she was given options. As a nurse and clinical trials project manager, she knew where to look and what questions to ask.

“I looked through medical journals and talked to other medical professionals,” she said. “And I also talked to others who had similar experiences to make the best decision for myself.”

As a Black woman, Gray explained that there is not a lot of trust in clinical trials or innovative therapies because of the history of African Americans in clinical trials. Working for St. Jude the last 14 years provided a certain level of confidence that she may not have had otherwise.

“I understand why some would be skeptical of being a part of anything new based on history,” she said. “But I suggest that others try to shift their thinking and be open to learning more about current trials and innovative therapies before they say no.”

Her empowerment had a lot to do with regular doctors’ visits. Gray stressed the importance of annual checkups and screenings.

“One of the reasons I was a candidate for this treatment is because they caught it so early,” she said.

Support creates confidence

Once Gray was diagnosed, she asked her OB-GYN whom he would recommend for treatment. She was looking for someone with a good bedside manner.

“I immediately liked my surgeon. Meeting her gave me another level of confidence,” she said. “The advice I would give, and have given to others, is to first make sure they feel comfortable with their health care providers and select a team who gives support and comfort. Providers who have a good bedside manner are really important.”

Gray also stressed how important the support of her co-workers and supervisors was for peace of mind.

“As a project manager, it is important to be on top of my job and I wanted to be very hands-on, but my team members were very supportive. They made it clear that they had it covered, and the most important thing was for me to rest and heal physically and emotionally,” she said. “The moral support from everyone was phenomenal. They gave me the confidence I needed to rest and not feel like I was getting behind.”

The support Gray received from her husband, three children and parents, as well as her church community and faith brought the most comfort. Her husband supported her throughout her diagnosis, treatment and recovery, and her sister, who was a nurse at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, provided additional emotional support and advice. She credits her faith as a major source of emotional and spiritual support.

“For me, faith is really important,” she said. “It helps to have a positive attitude, whatever the outcome or journey may bring, and faith makes it easier to be positive and hopeful.”

Raising awareness for others

Gray thought about her journey and how it prepared her for her own strength and positivity. In 1997, she was a nurse at Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital and used to teach lunch and learns about breast cancer awareness.

“I would hold classes that taught women what they should know about breast cancer and prevention,” she said.

In many ways, she was not only preparing others—she was preparing herself.

Now Gray wants to contribute more to cancer awareness during National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week, which is June 17–23. The observance aims to raise awareness and build knowledge surrounding cancer clinical trial participation and minority population specimen donations for cancer research. 

She is positioned to demonstrate how powerful knowledge can be for one’s own health and how inspiration is key to encouraging others to be more proactive in their own health.

Gray has good advice for those who are currently struggling with their own cancer diagnosis.

“Be bold and think about the positive, despite any negative outcome,” she said. “Ask yourself what you can learn and how that knowledge can give you power to heal and help others.” 


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