Bahareh Bahadini, MD, has a lot to say about Mary Poitier, one of her favorite patients.
“She’s my heroine!” said Bahadini, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Medical Oncology and Therapeutic Research. “When I see her on this flyer, I get goosebumps.”
The flyer shows a smiling, confident Poitier and carries the message: “Mary Poitier for Mayor”.
Poitier, a longtime resident of Simi Valley, California, and a two-time cancer survivor, hopes to lead the town that gave her sanctuary so many years ago when she ended up in an abused women’s shelter. She wants to do for others what has been done for her.
“I want to bring more compassion to the job,” she says.
Win or lose, the idea of Poitier even running for mayor would have been absurd not so long ago.
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Poitier immigrated to New York City at 17 to find work and support her large family after the unexpected death of her father.
Things weren’t going well in New York. Poitier was soon broke and homeless. At 22, she spent three and a half days on a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles hoping to have better luck elsewhere.
Over the next few years, Poitier married, had three sons, and managed to amass an impressive list of educational achievements. She studied nursing, earned a paralegal degree, flirted with journalism, earned an MBA in public administration and a masters in communications management, and eventually found fulfillment in a series of undergraduate leadership positions, first at Moorpark College and later for California’s community colleges.
However, every step of her journey has been fraught with personal pain, first inflicted on her by an abusive husband and later, after a divorce, by the groundbreaking challenges of raising her sons alone. Despite her impressive academic record, she was often forced to survive on minimum-wage jobs, and sometimes no jobs at all. She persevered.
And then came the cancer.
She just knew
In 2011, she lost weight for no apparent reason. Her doctors ran tests that showed nothing. Poitier, growing weaker and more anxious, knew deep down that something was wrong. When a doctor told her, “You’re fine,” Poitier collapsed and exclaimed, “I’m not fine!” Decades earlier, a mammogram had detected swollen lymph nodes that were thought to be benign, but Poitier had lived in fear ever since Getting cancer, and now she kind of just knew.
She was right.
Further tests found a lump in her thyroid. Half of her thyroid was removed. A month later, an ultrasound detected cancer at the site of these previously enlarged lymph nodes. Poitier would need surgery.
Poitier received a lumpectomy, along with chemotherapy and radiation. She began a maintenance regimen of the anti-hormonal drug tamoxifen. For many patients, this is more than enough to keep the cancer at bay and prevent it from coming back. For a few years, that seemed to be the case with Poitier, though she recalls, “All my cancer markers stayed up.” So did her anxiety levels.
Then she moved to City of Hope and met Bahadini.
Listening to Poitier tell her story in her now calm, measured, controlled voice, it seems hard to imagine the terrified person Bahadini encountered when they first met in 2016.
“It was quite emotional,” Bahadini recalled, “to see this mother raising two teenagers. She was very concerned, a thinker who really needed help. She felt a bit lost.”
Bahadini tried to calm and soothe her new patient. But the next diagnosis was devastating. Poitier’s cancer had spread to her liver.
A doctor who is willing to take responsibility
“That was such a blow,” said Poitier. “Here I thought I had done everything right. And now, even though Dr. Bahadini was ready, I really wasn’t.”
Bahadini was determined to change that. As well as assembling a multidisciplinary team to treat Poitiers’ cancer (liver surgery and the targeted therapy drug Ibrance), Bahadini also became Poitiers’ secret weapon, always going the extra mile to strengthen Poitiers’ mental state with constant reassurance, anti-anxiety and stress management tips and steps forward above all to be there whenever Poitier needed a shoulder.
“She was more in love with me than I was with myself!” Poitier marveled, adding that whenever Bahadini felt down, she “pulled me out.”
She even helped calm Poitier’s children.
“My eldest son was traumatized by my cancer. He asked me, ‘Mom, will you be here when I graduate, when I get married, when I have kids?’ dr Bahadini heard this and said to me: ‘Tell him you will be there!’
“She has such a good, positive and analytical bedside manner,” Poitier continued. “She gave me hope. Every time I came to her, she gave me something positive to do or think about. I don’t know any other doctor who does that.”
Their conversations went well beyond the typical doctor-patient diversity and formed a bond, Bahadini says, which she rarely met with others. “Over time, I saw Mary become calmer and more collected. And now she’s as normal as can be.”
proud of each other
She’s proud of her star patient, so much so that she’s even asked Poitier to speak at events like a recent roundtable forum commemorating International Women’s Day. “To me she is much more than just a cancer patient,” said Bahadini, adding that she learned a lot from Poitier.
“Seeing this strong woman raise children, go to school, and serve her community strengthens my own role as a mother — and I complain less.”
Bahadini is even prouder of her City of Hope colleagues at the Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks facilities where Poitier was treated.
“We picked them up and jumped right at them,” Bahadini recalls. “We didn’t take our time. We performed state-of-the-art treatment. We removed her liver tumor quickly, which not every group practice is equipped to do.”
Poitier has remained in remission for about six years, a happy outcome if somewhat uncommon, especially in African American women. “Step by step,” Bahadini said, “they tend to have a worse prognosis and a higher recurrence rate.” She’s pleased that Poitier is doing so well.
But not nearly as enthusiastic as Poitier. As she ponders the possibility of pursuing her dream of public service as mayor, she is grateful to Bahadini and the professionals at City of Hope for making it possible.
“They are the elite of cancer care,” she said. “I am proud to be able to tell people that I am being treated there.”