Mother & Daughter: How cancer shaped the career path of the Office for Community Outreach & Engagement’s Program Director Francine Walton, MPH
Francine Walton, MPH, is a program director in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. Sharing the importance of cancer screening, early detection, and access to care is all in a day’s work as she leads the outreach and community education programs. But it’s also a personal priority. Her mother, a four-time cancer survivor, has had a profound influence on Walton’s career path. In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked Walton to share how her mother has shaped her perspective on the cancer journey, including the importance of hope and resilience in the face of adversity.
Q: Francine, you call your mother “a walking miracle.” Tell us a little about her cancer journey.
A: My mom was diagnosed with Stage 4b Hodgkin’s lymphoma, two primary breast cancers (one in each breast) and endometrial cancer. She is thriving as a cancer survivor and has no evidence of cancer now. Her first cancer diagnosis was in 1995 and treatment for the last cancer diagnosis ended in 2015.
Q: After your mother’s first diagnosis, what were your thoughts? As a daughter, how were you able to help and support your mother? Did your professional life inform how you approached her care?
A: My mom’s first cancer diagnosis was Stage 4b Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So, unlike the other cancers which were caught in very early stages, her first cancer diagnosis was very overwhelming. I had just moved back to Birmingham after graduating from my master’s program in Atlanta and was living in on my own. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately moved out of my apartment and moved home with my parents and brother, who was 12 years old at the time, so I could support my mom and help my parents with my brother and all his school and sports activities. I had only worked in the cancer field at American Cancer Society for six months or so at the time, so my approach to my mom’s cancer diagnosis was more informed by the breast cancer journey that my aunt went through 13 years before my mom’s first diagnosis. She was my mom’s youngest sister and fought breast cancer for seven years. Everything that my aunt experienced impacted how I supported and helped my mom and family.
I also had the privilege of doing a marathon in my mom’s honor with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program in Anchorage, Alaska in 1997. 26.2 miles!
Q: Your mother has survived breast cancer twice, as well as endometrial cancer and Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s a daunting list. What can you tell us about her ability to persevere? Did she do anything special that was key to her recovery or mindset?
A: I wholeheartedly believe that my mom persevered through her cancer journey and is thriving now because of her faith in God and her beautiful, positive, and loving spirit. She’s “our angel on earth.” My mom knows no stranger and loves helping others. She also had the best support team of family members and friends. I don’t think that she went to one chemo treatment without a friend or family member with her.
Another major key to my mom’s recovery was her medical team at UAB – her nurses (thank God for nurses), her oncologist, the staff who brought her food and cleaned her room. Everyone at UAB encouraged and supported her throughout her journey. I recently learned that the person who took my mom’s vitals every morning when she was in the BMT unit at UAB would sing songs to encourage my mom and lift her spirits. She was surrounded by loving, positive and caring people.
She also got counseling. There was a time when my mom just didn’t want to eat anything at a point during her cancer treatment. It was a very challenging time for her, and she was depressed. My mom made an appointment to see a therapist and went to her first session. When my mom walked out of that first counseling session, she said that her stomach started rumbling and she was starving. She stopped at the first place she could find and got a cheeseburger, french fries and a Dr. Pepper – and loved it! We have to make asking for help and seeking counseling a norm.
Q: Tell us about the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement, where you work. Why is this office a critical component to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB?
A: The vision of O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is “LIFE without cancer.” The Office of Community Outreach & Engagement (COE) is the cancer center’s trusted connection to communities with the highest burden of cancer and those most in need of cancer screening, treatment and other support. The only way to achieve “LIFE without cancer” is to lower the cancer burden in communities at highest risk. This is what we do in COE each and every day – literally.
COE staff and more than 400 Community Health Advisors (CHAs) who live and work throughout Alabama and Mississippi are trusted members of their local communities. Our county coordinators and CHAs are THE best messengers to promote cancer screenings, early detection, cancer prevention, and research opportunities and connect people to the services they need to reduce the burden of cancer.
Our office also provides authentic spaces for community members to truly engage with UAB clinicians and researchers face-to-face and virtually, which leads to the development of new priorities for the cancer center and other initiatives driven by the community.
Q: You were born in Washington, D.C., but moved as a young girl to Montgomery. Then you worked at UAB with the Cancer Center and the School of Public Health, and later at MD Anderson in Houston. What drew you back to UAB as a program director in the Office for Community Outreach & Engagement?
A: Being a part of the Deep South Network for Cancer Control with the Cancer Center more than 20 years ago was one of my most valuable work experiences. And I love and truly believe in the Community Health Advisor and Community Health Worker models. Training trusted natural helpers on lowering cancer risk in their communities through education and facilitating access to life-saving cancer screening tests and quality cancer care, and promoting tobacco-free living, the HPV vaccine and healthy lifestyles works! Having the opportunity to come back, continue that work and serve on a team of passionate, dedicated staff throughout Alabama and Mississippi was all the motivation that I needed to come back home.
Q: Your mother was a founding member of the Angel Squad, a group of volunteers who provide hope and comfort to breast cancer patients. What sorts of messages did she share?
A: Shout out to the Angel Squad! 😊 My mom loved volunteering with the Angel Squad. Some messages that my mom shared with other breast cancer patients:
- First … breathe.
- Bring someone with you for support and to take notes during doctor visits.
- Get as much information as possible about your cancer diagnosis.
- Find something to do that makes you feel good during your cancer journey and after.
- You are not alone.
- You are getting the best cancer care at UAB.
- Lean on your faith, family and friends.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- And finally … hold on.
Q: It’s almost Mother’s Day. You too are a mother. What does this special day mean to you?
A: Mother’s Day is a VERY special day for me. It’s a time of celebration and good memories. I am tremendously blessed to have a mother like I have, so I celebrate who she is, her cancer journey and that I get to talk to and learn from her almost every day. I am nowhere near as amazing as my mother, but I am the mom that I am because of her.
I also get to celebrate all the other mothers in my life – my sister, aunts, cousins, colleagues, and so many wonderful friends who are moms. It’s the toughest and most rewarding role of my life. And I get to remember and honor my grandmothers and my aunt who are no longer with us. All the moms in my life have influenced the career path that led me into cancer prevention and control and serving communities. Mothers love us, guide us and are our first teachers.
That’s what being a mom brings to the role that I play in the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. I love all the communities that we serve. I have the opportunity to guide and support an amazing team. And I get to provide education on ways to lower cancer risks so everyone has the opportunity to achieve optimal health.
Francine Walton, MPH, has more than 25 years of experience in public health leadership. She received a B.S. in biology from Howard University and a Master of Public Health degree from Emory University. Prior to her current role as Director of Outreach and Community Education with the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, Walton was the Deputy Director of Cancer Programs for the Georgia Department of Public Health and served as a Program Director at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She has a passion for serving communities and advancing health equity through authentic community and stakeholder engagement.
— Julie Cole Miller