Nov 15, 2022 Cassie Tomlin, photos by Alexis Hunley
A patient with a complicated cancer diagnosis trusts in her doctors.
At 75, JoAnn Wesley lives by these guiding principles: Know when to have faith and take your hands off a problem. Even when you’ve spent your last, give freely. An attitude of gratitude will attract even more happiness.
Sitting in her daughter’s home in Northridge on a balmy afternoon, JoAnn’s faith and optimism abound: "Honey, I have no complaints," she says. "If I was not feeling good—and I am—I still would have no complaints, because God has been good."
Yet in January 2020, barely a month after she’d moved to Los Angeles and two months before pandemic shutdowns, a health crisis caught JoAnn totally off guard.
One afternoon, she developed a violent stomachache and had trouble breathing. She swore she was fine, but her daughter called an ambulance, and not a minute too soon. At a nearby emergency room, scans detected a life-threatening pulmonary embolism—a blood clot in her lung. In the intensive care unit, special medication broke up the clot. But scans of her abdomen showed there was more to worry about: several large and concerning masses.
At first, I may not have all the answers, but I have a plan to get them as best I can, with a top-notch team. We put our heads together and do the work in the background so we can walk patients through step by step."
- Kristin Taylor, MD
Faced with such dire diagnoses after a near-death experience, JoAnn could have slumped to the lowest lows. But she rode it out, leaning on her faith, her family and her highly synchronized squad of caregivers—who in turn relied on her perpetual trust and enthusiasm.
"Everybody needs somebody to show them love and care, and I have so many who do that," JoAnn says. "And I’m thankful I’m still here, at least for one more day and one more night."
JoAnn was born in Arkansas and grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, where she spent summers picnicking on Lake Michigan with her four younger siblings. After high school, she worked in aerospace fabrication, manufacturing jet engine parts. She’s long retired, but JoAnn still stops to gaze up at airplanes; she loves to contemplate the hands that so skillfully turned them from melted metal to lofty machines.
Over the past couple of decades, JoAnn and her sister Shirley Booker kept each other company in their small city—thrift shopping and occasionally keeping tabs on local funerals just in case they’d missed an obituary for someone they knew. But in 2019, JoAnn’s daughter Kimberly Wesley, an assistant nurse manager at Cedars-Sinai, suggested that it was time to slow down. Kimberly encouraged her mother to move closer so they could take care of each other. That December, after some convincing, JoAnn left home and settled into the bedroom Kimberly had built for her.
But no sooner had JoAnn acclimated to the traffic and near-perfect weather than cancer diagnoses upended her new routine.
Immediately, Kimberly assembled a "slew of doctors" to help untangle JoAnn’s conditions. She started with Kristin Taylor, MD, a gynecologic oncologist who’d just opened an office at nearby Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, only 5 miles from home.
At their first visit, the Wesleys met the brilliant surgeon they had anticipated. But as much as they were comforted by Dr. Taylor’s quiet and humble determination, they were relieved that she was so funny and encouraging.
"We knew this would be complicated, and we had a lot of anxiety," Kimberly says. "Dr. Taylor immediately took my mother on and felt like family to us. She was just as determined to get to the bottom of it as we were."
Dr. Taylor leaned into the intricacy of her patient’s situation and collaborated with JoAnn’s other specialists to determine which cancer to address first, and how.
"It was a messy puzzle to sort out—but it’s my job to work through those complexities and reassure my patients they’re in good hands," Dr. Taylor says. "At first, I may not have all the answers, but I have a plan to get them as best I can, with a top-notch team. We put our heads together and do the work in the background so we can walk patients through step by step."
In June 2020, Dr. Taylor removed the tumor in JoAnn’s ovaries. For two weeks, JoAnn was hospitalized. There without family due to COVID-19 protocols, she was lonely, but she made it through. Chemotherapy treatments at Cedars-Sinai Cancer in Tarzana lasted until November 2020. That December, Amit Gupta, MD, an expert in urologic oncology at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, removed the cancer in her kidneys. Doctors are monitoring her pancreas, and she’s now cancer-free.
"My doctors and my nurse Sharlene Batres checked on me every day and kept Kim updated," JoAnn says. "It was overwhelming being away from my family, but all my caregivers are so kind and interested in the best care for me."
Dr. Taylor says JoAnn can attribute her recovery, at least in part, to the open and trusting relationship between her family and physicians.
"JoAnn is incredibly centered and calm—she inherently trusted us, which felt really good," she says. "I always wanted to do my best for her, as I do for all my patients."
JoAnn continues to see Dr. Taylor every three months. At appointments, while they celebrate JoAnn’s continued health, they celebrate Dr. Taylor’s successes as well. Through the course of her treatment, JoAnn has cheered as Dr. Taylor got engaged, married and had her first child.
"She watched it all unfold and was really excited for me," Dr. Taylor says. "To celebrate personal milestones and be able to share them is really special. JoAnn is like an adopted grandma to me."
These days, it doesn’t take much to make JoAnn happy: She goes to church, pokes around thrift shops, feeds the ducks at a nearby park and picks out bright, floral outfits to wear to her appointments. She’s prone to fits of laughter and often can be caught burying banana peels, despite her daughter’s protests, in her potted petunias, geraniums and impatiens to fertilize the soil.
She’s grateful for her doctors, who took charge but always considered her wishes. She’s grateful for Eldridge Hodge, Kimberly’s boyfriend, who cooks for her every day; Nakoya Summers, her granddaughter, who takes her on outings and to appointments; and Shirley, who came to Northridge to care for her for months. Mostly, she’s grateful for Kimberly.
"To have my daughter to take care of me toward the end of my life is a blessing," JoAnn says. "If I left this world today, I could say I had a wonderful life."
Dr. Taylor joined Cedars-Sinai in 2019. She graduated from Weill Cornell Medicine, and completed her residency at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and her fellowship at University of California, San Diego Health. She grew up in the small town of Charleston, Illinois. Because she knows how difficult it can be to access quality care outside city centers, providing patients with the best care close to home is a mission near to her heart. Dr. Taylor, her husband and their 1-year-old daughter love to listen to the birdsong from their home in peaceful Benedict Canyon, but they also appreciate that they’re just 15 minutes from the city, where they enjoy weekend brunches.
COMPLETE CANCER CARE IN TARZANA
JoAnn chose Dr. Taylor as her doctor because she’s close to home—but the two connected for so much more. Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center is home to leading-edge, comprehensive cancer care serving the San Fernando Valley and beyond. Patients have access to a vast network of top surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists, who develop personalized care to achieve the best possible outcomes.
Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center specialists provide the full spectrum of cancer support services and treatment on-site, including dedicated and compassionate geneticists, nutritionists, case managers, social workers, rehabilitation experts and physical therapists. Patients receive complete, quality care at one central hub.