The Power a Cancer Doctor’s Reassuring Smile Holds

Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™, CURE® Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™ 2021 Essay Book, Volume 1,

A patient with metastatic breast cancer honors her medical oncologist, Dr. Maria Raquel Nunes, for her calming and optimistic approach.

For CURE’s inaugural Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™ awards, I would like to respect- fully nominate Dr. Maria Raquel Nunes, a breast medical oncologist at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Sibley Memorial Hospital, as well as assistant professor of oncology for The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Beyond her impressive and well-deserved medical and academic credentials, Dr. Nunes is widely revered by patients and colleagues alike for her boundless warmth, empathy and kindness. And that smile. We all love that reassuring smile.

It was her smile that first greeted me during my initial appointment in 2017. Having recently received a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I had traveled 75 miles to Sibley from my mountainside home to be seen by Dr. Nunes. With her smile, I was immediately swept up in a calming and liberating wave of optimism.

As I soon learned, that wonderful smile is an outward manifestation of Dr. Nunes’ innate sense of purpose. And Dr. Nunes’ purpose is to always do the best by her patients.

Deeply embodied in Dr. Nunes’ sense of purpose is a desire to actively involve those patients in discussions and decisions representing a broad range of treatment possibilities. No false hopes. No magical cures. Just the latest and greatest in available options, grounded in solid science and research, both of which Dr. Nunes enjoys and fosters.

During these conversations, Dr. Nunes invites questions as well as candid, even differing viewpoints. The resulting free-flowing dialogue between patient and practitioner is as enlightening as it is encouraging.

Who knew that metastatic breast cancer could be effectively stabilized without the horror show that often accompanies raw chemo? I didn’t until Dr. Nunes originally proposed an oral drug regimen. When the effectiveness of one of the drugs ultimately waned, she recommended that I enroll in a Hopkins-affiliated clinical trial. Here, I have remained for over two years.

Thankfully, the retooling is working; during my last visit, heady medical terms like “awesome” and “beautiful” were used to describe results of the obligatory CT scan and labs. As if this alone weren’t cause for celebration, the scan also revealed the offending tumor was “smaller.”

Needless to say, there were smiles all around in exam room 4 that day, with Dr. Nunes leading the pack.

Dr. Nunes’ sincere desire to engage her patients in every aspect of their care isn’t limited to purely clinical queries.

At the start of this past January’s visit, she sensed an undercurrent of despair, reminiscent of my first Sibley visit. Even with my face shielded in a mandatory COVID-19 mask, Dr. Nunes realized something was very wrong. Putting the results of the morning’s labs on momentary hold, she paused from the routine portion of the visit to find out just what was troubling me so.

“My sister died from cancer yesterday,” I blurted out. “She fought hard for seven years, but it wasn’t enough.”

Then I proceeded to soak that annoying mask in a torrent of tears.

Dr. Nunes, who must see her share of distraught and despairing patients with cancer, pulled as close to me as polite social distancing would allow and began to listen intently as I recounted memories of my sister and her endless zest for life.

Kate had an extraordinary singing voice, was an accomplished fiddler and was studying opera, even as cancer was consuming her lungs. She was a true believer in music’s power to lift lives and souls, and her beloved fiddle will be raffled to raise funds for educational music programs.

All this I unloaded on the gracious and giving Dr. Nunes, who had never met Kate.

When I finally finished, Dr. Nunes peered over her mask and reflected on the loss of my talented sister and her courageous struggle. How she must have touched so many people. How her music must have been so special.

Then Dr. Nunes looked directly into my teary eyes, reaching past the grief to remind me that my sister wouldn’t want me to abandon my own cancer battle — an admonition Kate had quietly proffered, the last time I saw her, two months before she died.

Throughout these past four years, there has been any number of instances when I came away from an appointment believing Dr. Nunes was the most compassionate and dedicated doctor ever to don a white coat. True to her innate sense of purpose, Dr. Nunes’ genuine concern for my medical and personal well-being was never more on display than it was that dreary January afternoon.

All the while, a merciless global pandemic continued to subject health care heroes like Dr. Nunes to unrelenting mental, emotional and physical challenges.

I am truly grateful for everything Dr. Nunes has done for me since beginning my cancer journey. “Awesome” and “beautiful” test results. The incredible, shrinking tumor. A sympathetic ear when it was needed the most. Heartfelt words of support and consolation to go along with that sympathetic ear.

Oh, and her smile. I’ll always be grateful for her reassuring smile.

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