This physician uses his debut book to advocate for improved cancer healthcare within the Black community.
“Who is Fitzroy Dawkins?” That’s a question with several answers, each informing the other. Professionally, Fitzroy Dawkins, M.D., is a Black oncologist and hematologist, a former professor of medicine at Howard University in Washington, DC, and a leading R&D professional in the biotech industry. Personally, Fitzroy is a happily married man and a proud father of two prospering adult daughters.
Uniting the two into a cohesive whole, Fitzroy Dawkins is a deeply empathetic individual who’s passionate about cancer healthcare, especially within the Black community. Decades ago, when Fitzroy felt called to his physician life, biomedical research was “the furthest thing” from his mind. Now, he devotes his time working to remove the stigma attached to the American medical system from deplorable episodes like the Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks affairs. A disparity exists between cancer rates in the Black community and remedial healthcare opportunities. Through his esteemed professional career and his personal efforts as a debut author, Fitzroy strives to delineate fact from superstition so Black individuals can pursue the many equitable and life-saving treatments available to them.
The Need for Accessible Healthcare
Currently based in Princeton, New Jersey, Fitzroy was born and raised in Jamaica. His mother trained in London as a nurse and served Jamaican communities who lacked accessible healthcare options. As such, she wore many hats: doctor, nurse, dentist, and midwife, to name a few. “I watched her as a professional,” says Fitzroy, “a very caring, committed nurse, who sometimes would disappear for long stints of time into the bushes to deliver a baby, because hospitals were present, but an arduous journey.”
His mother’s influence, the needs of underserved Jamaican lives, and his Christian faith inspired Fitzroy to move to New York City and graduate with a medical degree. But Fitzroy was no stranger to health mysteries. He spent his pre-teen years ill with a disease that remains undiagnosed. He underwent many evaluations, hospital stays, and surgeries. During that time, he witnessed “disastrous things,” including violent injuries. Some hospital patients passed away because doctors took vacation days. Fitzroy shares, “That was really quite traumatic and made a deep impression on me.”
These factors, combined with a “sort of all-consuming” love for science, determined the course of Fitzroy’s life. But that life still took surprising turns.
Joining the Revolution Without Forgetting the Past
Fitzroy’s initial plan was to return to Jamaica after earning his degree. Taking care of others was, in his words, “a primary part of my DNA,” and he felt he owed “a debt of gratitude” to the Black men and women whose resilience and sacrifices in the fight against insidious racism had given him opportunities.
Although Fitzroy’s goals remained the same, their direction changed. “What I saw…as a practicing physician, primarily in a hospital which admitted African American patients,” Fitzroy says, “it broke my heart in so many ways.” Many Black patients refused to participate in clinical trials given the historical abuse perpetrated by the medical industry.
But clinical research saves lives. Fitzroy realized how many Black individuals don’t pursue scientific advancements, especially regarding preventative cancer care. Devoted to his patients and resolved to make a radical difference, Fitzroy dedicated his life to spreading awareness, clarifying suspicions, and erasing fear.
“African Americans are people who are overcomers,” he says. “We have a history of pain and suffering, we have a history of discrimination…and biomedical research malfeasance. But we don’t have to live or stay there. We can join the revolution while not forgetting our past.”
Fitzroy hadn’t anticipated that a book would help him achieve this goal. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened.
Pursuing a New Path
The impetus for Fitzroy’s debut book, Fighting for Survival: Conquering Cancer and the African American Patient, struck during his time as the Vice President for Clinical Development at a Boston biotech company. His work addressed sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder, and castration-resistant prostate cancer, an advanced type of cancer for which there’s currently no cure. Both illnesses disproportionately affect Black communities.
Frankie Johnson, a coach of Fitzroy’s, recommended that Fitzroy distill his research, expertise, and drive into something widely accessible — a book. If Fitzroy was interested, Frankie’s acquaintance was just the person for the job: Nancy Erickson.
“It gave me pause,” Fitzroy says. He’d entertained the idea of writing books, but his ideas were historically based, not medicinal. After consideration, he contacted Nancy. It didn’t take much conversation for Fitzroy to know that Nancy was, indeed, the right person to help.
Learning a New Style
What skills did prose writing need? How could he translate ideas into action? Was she a ghostwriter?
These are some of the questions Fitzroy asked Nancy Erickson. There was never doubt on any front, especially the latter point. Nancy was a writing coach: a dedicated, personable, and accomplished mentor who could discover and nurture his potential. Fitzroy alone did the heavy lifting.
Fitzroy had published many scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. Those works, while requiring immense proficiency, were data-driven. Facts went into tables, and his hypothesis was straightforward. Telling a story meant Fitzroy had to develop a new skill set. A book like his requires structure, flow, and compelling prose. He learned Nancy’s processes, like the BookMAP program, and applied these best practices across his various drafts.
“Some of [what I learned] was the technicalities, things that you don’t normally think about,” explains Fitzroy. “Who is your target audience? What does a chapter look like? English is my only language, and I learned a different version of things as to where commas and semi-colons go.”
The structure proved paramount. Just like an architect draws sketches and a building needs a foundation, Fitzroy’s book demanded more than the bare-bones presentational style of a research paper. Nancy’s guidelines helped Fitzroy streamline his thoughts. Then, he established — and maintained — an emotional hook capable of moving readers. If he brought people into his world, then he could reach their hearts.
“She helped me understand that I can take these stories from my past…and use [them to] delve into more difficult subject matter,” Fitzroy says of Nancy. “It was a beautiful thing in terms of working through that.”
Fitzroy also discovered the benefits of a professional refining his work. Several times, he was content with what he found a “beautiful” sentence, only for Nancy to transform it into something superior. For example, she removed extraneous words, thereby distilling his goals to their strongest essence. “She was almost scientific in her approach,” Fitzroy describes. “Very structured, clear, meticulous.”
Because some of Nancy’s editorial advice surprised him, Fitzroy admits to harboring initial doubts. But Nancy was always right. Yes, he laughs, he was “sick of” his book after rereading it multiple times. But there’s no doubt about Nancy’s suitability in Fitzroy’s mind. Her advice ensured that he crafted Fighting for Survival: Conquering Cancer and the African American Patient into a message reflective of his heart and worthy of its complex subject.
Fitzroy praises his experience with Nancy as “extraordinary.” Not only is he confident about approaching future writing projects with newfound skill, but he values the way Nancy “held to her philosophy” until the end. Thanks to Nancy’s carefully curated and proven process, when he pursues his next book, he’ll no longer stall after page one. And he’ll schedule a reunion with Nancy.
A Successful Group Project
In addition to Nancy’s coaching, Fitzroy participated in one of Nancy’s weekly Executive Writing Group MASTERMIND cohorts. Every member addressed a different topic, but that didn’t prevent them from contributing helpful insights. As their manuscripts developed in tandem, they advised one another. Fitzroy likens it to a group research project under the instruction of a professor figure, and he incorporated his cohorts’ perspectives.
In a lovely twist of fate, one of Fitzroy’s colleagues was Stu Wittner, the author of A Win a Day: What I Learned from Basketball That Made Me a Sales Professional. Stonebrook Publishing, released Stu’s book in August 2023 and our blog profiled his experience the following month.
Hopes for the Future
How does Fitzroy feel about Fighting for Survival: Conquering Cancer and the African American Patient’s publication? A mixture of excitement, elation, and accomplishment. Fighting for Survival gives Fitzroy a larger platform, “the potential for reaching a large audience…with a story that I believe needs to be told. A story of hope, a story of resilience…and the prospect of hope for anyone with cancer, but particularly…the audience I have come to embed myself with and see myself as one with.”
That said, Fitzroy holds concerns about the book’s reception. He hopes that pouring his “heart and soul” into this project, a representation of his life’s driving work, won’t fail to reach those who need reaching. He also hopes people won’t “misinterpret” his reasons for raising awareness about medical research and cancer prevention.
But Fitzroy never doubts his conviction to author his book, nor Nancy’s vital instruction. “Hopefully,” he reflects about the experience, “some piece of this will not only push others to think about cancer research and the whole medical industrial complex as relates to Black people but will think about writing something they’re passionate about.”
If anyone can spread positivity through their story, Fitzroy advocates they pursue it wholeheartedly. For Fitzroy Dawkins, M.D., a writing coach wasn’t just the right path. It was the only path.
Do you have a story inside your heart? Do you believe your contributions can help others? Reach out to Nancy Erickson and we’ll find the right program for your needs.