Dr. Lori Wilson dreamed of being a surgeon since she was 7 years old. After achieving her dream and helping hundreds of cancer patients as a surgical oncologist, she discovered her own breast cancer last year. She shares her story in the new PBS documentary Cancer: The Emperor of Maladies. See her journey and health tips for Black women.

Name: Dr. Lori Wilson

Age: 46

Location:  Washington, DC

Title: Howard University Hospital & College of Medicine Surgical Oncologist and Surgery Residency Program Director

The gig: I am surgical oncologist so I operate one or two days a week. I see patients one or two days a week. Then I am program director for the general surgery residency managing 33 residents through their training. I also volunteer and provide more than 50 women with free mammography and clinical breast exams once a month.

The journey: I always liked science and numbers and decided I wanted to be a surgeon when I was 7. I used to watch MASH and I wanted to be like Hawkeye. It did not dawn on me that he did not look like me. My parents used to say if you work hard, you can be whatever you want to be. They lived in the segregated south and waited until later to have me when there were more opportunities for Black people. I am the first person in my family to finish college. Then I went to grad school and became a doctor. In southeastern Virginia, there are a lot of Black universities there so I had a lot of influences from Hampton University to Norfolk State. 

Discovering her own cancer: I was diagnosed in June 2013 when my son was 18 months old. After I stopped breastfeeding one of my breasts did not go down, which is abnormal, so I got my mammogram. I was devastated when I got my diagnosis of breast cancer. I chose John Hopkins for treatment since I was so known at Howard and just wanted to be a patient, and it was a closer trip to my house. On my first visit, I realized my medical oncologist was a woman I had sat next to at a charity event months before. 

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Deciding to share her cancer journey on film: At my first appointment to discuss treatment, I met a nurse navigator. She called me the next day and she said, “We are doing a documentary and I think that you would be a good fit.” I wasn’t sure. When I thought more about it and talked to my husband, I felt that even though it was one of the most vulnerable times of my life, the experience may be useful to someone. When I look at the statistics, I should be winning the lottery. Being a cancer surgeon, being a Black woman in the United States diagnosed with two different types of breast cancer pre-menopausaly with an 18-month-old baby. There is probably not another woman like that.

Her message to Black women: Even though we think about breast cancer victims as post-menopausal women, Black women in their 40’s and 30’s are at risk.  Any time something feels off, get it checked out. Early detection has helped save my life.

Her good time: I hang out with my husband and my son, and I cook. We actually just bought a house. Our favorite day of the year is December 23rd. It’s our anniversary, my parent’s anniversary, my son’s birthday and the day we closed on our new house.

Her power look: I like a fitted form. I prefer to wear either red or black and usually a pencil skirt.

Her theme song: “I Understand” by Smokie Norful.

Her mantra: “Have I been a blessing to somebody today?”

See more of Dr. Lori Wilson’s story in the new documentary “Ken Burns Presents Cancer: The Emperor of Maladies” premiering March 30th – April 1st on PBS.