“I think that anyone who chooses to become a physician, attorney or any professional who must go to postgraduate school knows that it’s a journey. It seemed so long when I was actually doing it, but now when I reflect upon it, time went quickly! I think that was easier to conquer when I tried to take it on in portions instead of big bites. It’s a necessary process. There is a LOT to learn. I am STILL learning because it never stops. I always tell students to “work hard, play hard, and pray hard”. That’s what got me through. I surrounded myself with like-minded, positive people. It’s easier to accomplish a goal when your support system is faithful and strong. I had a LOT of people praying for me, too. It wasn’t easy, but I knew what I wanted. Don’t misunderstand; I definitely made some poor choices and bad mistakes, but there was a lesson in each of them. The movie, “The Great Debaters” starred Denzel Washington. His character states at one point, “We do what we HAVE to do so that we can do what we WANT to do.”
Meet Dr. Cannon.
Dr. Octavia Cannon works as an OB/GYN in a private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she has been for over 15 years. Prior to this role, she was the Director of Women’s Health for over 6 years in the Gaston County Health Department. From Lansing, Michigan, she is the first person in her family to attend college. She could walk to Michigan State from her house, so when it came time to apply to colleges she decided she was headed to the University of Michigan. However, the assistant principal from her middle school knew the President of Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina. After he reviewed her application materials, he offered her a 4-year full scholarship in the Honors Program. As she had grown up in predominantly white schools, she guessed that her former assistant principal thought it would be good for her to receive the HBCU experience. She completed medical school in Miami, Florida, and then completed her residency in Detroit. As she talked about her journey to where she is now, interestingly enough being an OB/GYN was not always what she wanted to do.
“When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be a pediatrician and a librarian at the same time! Ironically, my first job in high school was a library page at East Lansing Public Library. Later, I had a work-study job in the medical library when I was in med school. My pediatrician aspirations continued until my second year of med school; when I actually did my pediatrics rotation. I love children so much that it was emotionally taxing for me to treat sick children. Pediatrics is like veterinary medicine; your patients cannot talk to you/tell you what’s wrong. I would skip lunch and go to the hospital to sit with the children I’d admitted because the parents were at work. I didn’t want them to be afraid. Finally, my attending physician told me that I should pick another specialty. He said that I would not be able to separate my personal life from my career and I would burn out quickly. So, I chose obstetrics (delivering babies) and gynecology (surgery). Obstetrics is still my favorite part.”
Work Hard, Play Hard.
Dr. Cannon has reached great heights in her medical career. In 2018, the American College of Osteopathic Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOOG) named her their first African-American president in its highest leadership position. As an African American woman, she truly is a role model to so many younger African American women who are interested in pursuing a career in medicine. As she looks back on her career thus far, she emphasizes the importance of working hard – but playing even harder.
“If I could give my younger self advice – SO many things come to mind! One would be to date more; which is part of the “work hard/play hard” mantra. I was often so focused on finishing school and studying that I missed out on some fun social life experiences. That may be why I am single! Also, make a budget and stick to it. Put some money in a savings account at least once monthly and LEAVE IT ALONE!! Don’t be afraid to ask for help/advice. Be humble; you can learn from everyone. Most importantly- “When people show you who they are, believe them the FIRST time”-Dr. Maya Angelou. I was blessed to meet her in 2005 and actually spent time with her and a small gathering of people at her brownstone in Harlem, NY. We sat around her kitchen table drinking wine while she held court and just dropped knowledge like nuggets of gold. I’ll never forget it.”
One of the hardest parts for me about getting older, and moving through different periods of life is understanding that not everyone is going to clap for you – even if you are the biggest cheerleader to everyone else. Not everyone is going to see your success as an inspiration – and some may even see it as a threat. As Dr. Cannon highlighted, you have to be your biggest advocate.
Self-Esteem and Self-Affirmations.
“There will always be people who will doubt you. This is where self-esteem and self-affirmation can literally save your life. I used to (and still do) tape bible verses and affirmations to my bathroom mirror. I would see them every morning and every night. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else believe in you? Scientific studies have shown that it takes 21 days to make something a habit. Repeat those affirmations until you believe them. Fake it until you make it.”
Dr. Cannon has delivered over 5,000 babies and performed numerous surgeries to help women be healthy. As beautiful of an experience as childbirth is, the unfortunate part is that not every child will make it. One of the most humbling experiences of her career actually happened early on – but has stuck with her to this day about the importance of taking your health seriously.
Taking Care of Your Health is Essential.
“I was working at Gaston County Health Department and a patient came in with vaginal bleeding. She was 32 years old with 4 children. She had her tubes tied after her 4th baby a few years earlier, so she would not have any more children. She had not come in for a pap smear nor physical exam since that time; likely thinking that it wasn’t necessary because she couldn’t get pregnant. She was a smoker. She was a single mom. When she came in for the problem appointment and I inserted the speculum, I immediately saw a HUGE mass with a bad odor. I wanted to biopsy the mass. I didn’t have to use any instruments to take a biopsy, because the mass broke off in pieces. I removed the speculum, put my hand inside to check her pelvis and the pieces literally came off in my hand. It was cancer. I took the pieces off of my glove and put them in a specimen container to send to the lab. The report confirmed the advanced-stage cervical cancer. When it was time to notify the patient, we couldn’t find her. This was 1999; there was no I-phone to text nor email her. She couldn’t be reached by phone; she had no cell phone. The head nurse at the Health Department and I had to go to her home and tell her the horrible news. We got her an appointment at Blumenthal Cancer Institute here in Charlotte pretty quickly, but she was dead in less than a year. The lesson here is: don’t take your health for granted, regardless of your age. SELF CARE IS ESSENTIAL!! I have personally lost a dear friend to this horrible COVID virus. He was a college classmate. He was married with 3 children. He was healthy. Disease can attack anyone. You have to know what is normal for you so that you know when something is abnormal.”
No matter what career field you are in, we all have moments when we feel overwhelmed and frightened of what lay ahead of us. If we aren’t careful, it can cripple us. It can stop us from reaching our goals, and keep us from overcoming the mountain in front of us. In moments where I feel afraid, I have to stop and remember what I know to be TRUE, vs. what my anxiety is making me believe. For Dr. Cannon, her faith is what gets her through.
Don’t Let Your Emotions Cripple You.
“It is easy to feel overwhelmed or frightened when you care about people; even when they don’t care about themselves. I am that girl. When those feelings threaten to overtake my spirit; which usually happens when I am tired/fatigued/overwhelmed, I rely on my faith to see me through. I pray before EVERY surgery and delivery that I do. I ask my patients’ permission to pray over them while they are asleep in the operating room. I can honestly say that I have NEVER had a patient decline. There is a point when people trust you and know that prayer is not always about someone trying to “convert” you; it’s about their concern and care for you! Prayer gives me peace. I have prayed for and with patients who are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. I am blessed to have a richly diverse patient population of races, religions, personalities, beliefs, and FEARS; which is the same way that I grew up. I respect all people, but I am proud to be an African-American woman. DIVERSITY SHAPES OUR NATION. I embrace it. I don’t take God’s mercy and grace for granted.”
BEYOND grateful for your wisdom, Dr. Cannon. You truly are an inspiration.
Keep Watering Your Garden today, ladies.