It’s a good thing Dr. Lucybeth Nieves-Arriba, a Wilmington, North Carolina, gynecological oncologist originally from Puerto Rico, paid no attention to some advice she got early in her career.

“We're now in a culture that honors being different, but I recall being told during my residency in Connecticut to stop moving my hands when I talk because New Englanders must respect the personal space of people,” said the Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute doctor. “And, a dear mentor told me I needed to take a speech class to neutralize my accent so I could go higher in my career. Can you imagine if anybody said that today?”

Her patients appreciate the very things those early mentors coached her to contain. Anyway, it would have been impossible to rein in such an outsized personality.

“I talk the way my mom and grandmother talked,” said the self-described "spicy Latina," 48. “They never sugarcoated things.”

Her patients appreciate her honesty, too. “I think, before my generation, people believed in this paternalistic mentality of medicine where the white male doctor tells you: ‘Don't worry about it; let me worry about it,’” she said. “But that takes away the main player – the patient. If you don't present things in an honest, simple and straight way, that takes away their power. And it's crucial to be empowered to make your own decisions.

“A cancer diagnosis comes out of left field,” she continued. “You’re not expecting it. And cancer is scary. It's your right to ask questions and make your own decisions.”

“You ask me whatever questions you have, and you will get a straight answer. And if what you want to do is go to Mexico and drink margaritas, that might be the best medicine for you. I will tell you to go and have fun. I think the best thing we can do in medicine is treat people the way we want to be treated.”

Dr. Michael Papagikos
Dr. Michael Papagikos,
a radiation oncologist and lead physician at Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute Coastal region, works closely with Nieves-Arriba. “She brings this big energy and personality into the room. She's not afraid to embrace patients,” he said. “Patients going through a cancer diagnosis look for opportunities for lightness, fun and friendliness anyplace they can find it. Having Dr. Nieves – with her big, friendly, outgoing personality – as a doctor is great.”

She’s also a fierce advocate for patients. “They feel like she’s a bulldog for them,” Papagikos said. “She’s going to provide expert, compassionate clinical care and also knock down any barriers that get thrown in their way – insurance barriers, transportation, logistics.”

Raised by a strong woman

Nieves-Arriba grew up in a poor neighborhood in Puerto Rico. She got her first job – working for the government – at just 13. She has a brother nine years her senior (who’s now an engineer), and their dad died when Lucybeth was just 3.

“We were raised by a woman – a widow – and there's just something about a Latina woman,” she said. “They’re tough.”

Nieves-Arriba’s role, even as a child, was to care for the sick people in her family. She was “everybody's caregiver,” she said. In Puerto Rico, it’s common for extended families to live under the same roof. Her grandmother, who lived with them, got cancer. And the future oncologist helped care for her.

Taking care of people with cancer seemed like a natural career choice. But first, she needed to get to the U.S. mainland; there were no gynecologic oncology fellowships in Puerto Rico. Her mentors pointed her to the U.S. where, they said, she could work on her English and increase her chances of becoming an oncologist.

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She’d heard there was a substantial Hispanic population in Connecticut. In addition, an uncle had moved to nearby New York in the 1950s, and she had college friends from Puerto Rico who’d come to Boston for graduate school. “I thought UConn in Connecticut was perfect, because the only people I knew in the states lived close,” she said.

Still, she experienced culture shock. She’d never seen snow before. She was also the first ob-gyn Puerto Rican resident UConn had ever had. When she next went to the Cleveland Clinic for a fellowship, she was the first Puerto Rican female to have a fellowship in gynecological oncology.

Her reason for going into oncology was clear – her grandmother. But why gynecology?

That goes back to her family, too. “I think being raised by a woman (without my dad around) helped me understand women … I know how to care for women.

“There are three ways of being an oncologist,” she continued. “You can be a medical oncologist and treat patients with chemo. You can be a surgical oncologist and operate on people with cancer. Or you can be an ob-gyn oncologist – a mix of both. We diagnose, we perform surgery, we provide chemo and we provide end-of-life care, when that’s necessary. We can be with patients from diagnosis to the end of their journey."

With oncological care, Nieves-Arriba said, “You become part of the family, you know?” It’s perfect for a physician who values family as much as she does.

A doctor and a teacher

Nieves-Arriba also enjoys being a teacher. “I tell the residents: You need to learn how to care for patients and how to communicate with them and your peers. Don’t rely so much on technology like texting. Instead, look at somebody’s face.”

She pays special attention to the importance of focusing on the human side of medicine. “The best mentors of my life were those who taught me about big-picture things – not the ones who showed me how to calculate a chemotherapy drug,” she said.

Papagikos has enjoyed seeing Nieves-Arriba become a mentor and leader in their department. “Her mentor here was Dr. Walter Gajewski, who recently retired and was a giant in terms of clinical skill, resident teaching and education,” he said. “I have watched her pick up that torch and become an incredible educator, mentor and leader.”

In addition, Papagikos called her “a huge proponent for GYN cancer research” and said she’s been the principal investigator on a number of local clinical trials.

A devoted daughter

Nieves-Arriba married a man, Topher Davis, she met six years ago who sounds as interesting as she is. He’s a retired professional surfer with a Ph.D. in American history. “We're completely opposite,” she said. But they knew right away where the relationship was headed: “We were engaged within six months and married three months after that.”

Nieves-Arriba said Latina daughters are raised to take care of everyone – and especially their own mothers when the time comes.

Her mom came to live with her after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico in 2017. But after six months, she was missing Puerto Rican food and returned home. When her mom developed dementia, she moved back in with her now-married daughter.

“I think life gives you opportunities to grow all the time,” she said. “In my culture, it's vital to take care of your loved ones when they’re sick. My husband and I took care of my mom who died of dementia two years ago.”

Today, Nieves-Arriba is the incoming chair of the oncology department and a member of the hospital’s oncology leadership group.

She takes on a maternal role with residents. She said: “God gave me one baby that came with my husband – my stepson, who’s a wonderful kid. But God didn’t make me go through labor. I needed to take care of too many kids.

“I feel like I am the residents’ mom. I always tell them, ‘Hey, I'm bossy because that’s how I was raised. That means I love you. And if I get cranky at you, it’s because I know you can do better.’”