Bristol Myers Squibb employee and cancer patient Atiba Page

'Broken crayons still color' - Bristol Myers Squibb employee shares cancer journey

The embracing culture at Bristol Myers Squibb helped cancer survivor Atiba Page navigate the darkest storm of her life

September 22, 2021     

On Christmas Eve in 2018, Atiba Page didn’t know yet that Stage IV cancer had made a home in her body. But after a self-examination, she felt a lump the size of a softball and knew something was wrong. She called her mother into the room for second opinion, and the look on her mother’s face sealed it.

On Valentine’s Day in 2019, after a consultation with her doctor, a mammogram and an ultrasound, the diagnosis was made official, and Atiba fell apart.

“I spent 10 days in bed just crying,” Atiba said. “Those were the loneliest 10 days of my life.”

It was a pep talk with her brother, Ronald, that helped Atiba throw off the covers and rise up. “He said to me, ‘If you want this to be the end, then it will be the end. But if you don’t, this is the time you fight,’” she said. “From that moment on, I never looked back.”

A life-changing and devastating decision nearly steered her off course early on. Before she began treatment, her doctors encouraged her to freeze her eggs, in the event she would one day want to have children, which she most certainly did. “But how could I have a child not knowing if mommy was going to die from this disease?” she said, tears streaming.

Atiba made the decision to close the door on motherhood.

She began her treatment plan at the Rutgers Cancer Institute, part of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. Treatment included six weeks of aggressive chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, as the cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes and brain. A self-proclaimed “unicorn,” Atiba chose to navigate her cancer journey with a majestic grace and optimistic attitude. She’s got a smile like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming — one can’t help but smile back. “I’m a naturally happy person, so it was important for me to keep that going through all of this.”

It was during her treatment that Atiba transitioned from a contractor at Bristol Myers Squibb to a full-time employee as manager of Talent Acquisition and Diversity Recruitment. Being welcomed into the company family at a time when she was so ill was a game changer for Atiba, she said. 

“At the time, I was bald, I had no eyebrows and no eyelashes and the company hired me when I was going through all of this. They didn’t pity me, no one treated me differently,” Atiba said. “Everyone at the company raised their hand to help me. That was super important; it helped me to be courageous and took away so much stress. I believe that’s why I’m still here, because of that support.”

After all, Atiba added, “Broken crayons still color. Yes, we may be patients, but we are still people,” she said.

That message is one that drives Atiba in her role today. Atiba is responsible for bridging the gap between Talent Acquisition and the company’s People and Business Resource Groups (PBRGs) to find diverse talent.

“I am helping to hold people accountable, to join me in seeking out talent in unknown or uncomfortable places,” she explained. “I cause healthy disruptions.”

In her role, Atiba has found her voice to speak out on behalf of people with disabilities. She was recently named an Employee of the Year by CAREERS & the disABLED magazine, a career-guidance and recruitment magazine for people with disabilities. The award celebrates role models and leaders within the disability community while recognizing their contributions to the workforce, and how they’ve helped transform the workplace.

Atiba founded Khronic Kuties, a Facebook and local community support group designed to help differently-abled freethinkers design their individual “yellow brick road” to success. Atiba uses this platform to empower, inspire and motivate others by teaching individuals how to market and bring their differently-abled authentic selves to any work environment.

She’s also using her voice to reduce the stigma around discussing cancer, particularly within the Black community. “In communities of color, we don’t talk about cancer,” she said. “It’s a conversation we need to have more around the dinner table.”

Mental health is another taboo topic in the Black community, Atiba added, and she advocates for mental health to be a staple in any cancer treatment.

“If a cancer patient isn’t OK mentally, all the other treatment they’re given isn’t going to work,” she said.

“There’s lots of work to do in this space, but I’m happy to do it,” she added.

Currently, Atiba has no evidence of disease. In October, she goes for her next set of scans. The doctor’s office has already called, but Atiba’s “scan anxiety” has made her too nervous to answer the call, she admitted. “But this semi-broken crayon is ready to fight no matter what my scan detects,” she said. “Being a Bristol Myers Squibb employee gives me hope to keep pushing forward.”

Atiba’s story will be featured in this year’s Global Patient Week September 27 to October 1, a company event designed to honor our patients and the company’s mission to ensure longer and better lives for them. Click here to learn more about Global Patient Week.

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