How I Got Into Cancer Research

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When I was a fourth grader in elementary school, my older sister was a senior in high school. She used to hang out with her friends at our house and I would tag along. This is where my experience with cancer began. Her best friend, Keaton, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the beginning of his senior year. Throughout his fight against cancer, he was eventually hospitalized. I would visit him in the hospital quite frequently with my sister. He fought to make it through many senior milestones: homecoming, prom, and graduation. While it was a struggle, he achieved these goals, even if it meant wheeling his way across stage with an oxygen tank. Through it all, my sister was right by his side. Unfortunately, four days after he graduated, he succumbed to his illness. My entire family was devastated; he was too young, his time shouldn’t have come yet. I told myself that I would do what I could to help others with cancer, to help youth with cancer as well as those affected by it. Nine years after Keaton’s story, my grandma was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. I watched her go from being mobile and independent, to bed bound and on hospice within one week of her diagnosis, she passed away within 2 weeks of her diagnosis; my 19-year-old self did not know what to do or how to react. 

Fast forward one year later to March 2021 and there I was, a sophomore in college. I was presented with the opportunity to participate in cancer research. As a cancer research assistant with the University of Arizona’s College of Nursing I was tasked with recruiting adolescents and young adults for a research study regarding how adolescents and young adults with cancer and their caregivers’ lives are disrupted. In doing so, I was able to coauthor papers, present abstracts in AACR conferences, and continue my learning. I kept my promise to my fourth grade self – I would make a difference in the lives of youth affected by cancer. My grandma’s experience also helped me to realize the importance of cancer education and resources. While her cancer was something her doctors were unable to diagnose until the very end due to other health conditions, this should not have been the case. Cancer education is so important. 

This leads into the topic of another study I participated in during my time as a research assistant at the UA-CON. The CIRCLE study (The Cancer misInformation Research among Caregivers and patiEnts) study. This study revolved around cancer misinformation on social media. Its purpose was to determine how young adults with cancer and their family members or friends find and evaluate cancer information on social media. This could help cancer patients, their family, and educators to find quality information. 

My grandma and Keaton both inspired me to work in the healthcare field and to seek out a position in cancer research. I absolutely enjoyed getting to be a research assistant through the UA-CON. I think it is important for people to know that cancer research is not always about looking at cells under a microscope and seeking out a cure for cancer, it is also about educating people with what is going on and finding ways to help people manage this information or stress caused by their situation. In my opinion, the “behind the scenes” research has the greatest direct impact on individuals affected by cancer.

By: Keely Smith