I am “Cancered Out:” My Journey as a clinical researcher in oncology

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“My name is Judy. It has probably been at least 8 months since Mukurima asked me to write for his blog.  The first time he mentioned it casually I didn’t think he was serious.  This was around the time his grandfather was battling cancer.  Never the one to give up, the son of Baricho kept reminding me of the need to write-write about an area that is close to my heart.03681294-5981-4d40-91d3-40fc14b0d272

What took me so long? Life happens.  You have good intentions but somehow time goes by so fast; too much to do and not enough time. The catalyst now is that someone I know has symptoms that could be indicative of cancer.  The tests have been done and we are waiting for the results in another week.  Writing for this blog is way overdue as it seems cancer is in the air.    It is just 3 months into 2016 and I know 3 people who have been diagnosed with 3 different types of cancer.  At the moment, I feel “cancered” out. Is “cancered” a word?  Absolutely not.  However, the phrase captures how I feel, worn out by cancer.  Timing is everything.

The irony of this, is I do clinical research in oncology for a living.  I work for a pharmaceutical company in the Bay Area i.e. Northern California, the greater San Francisco area. I run clinical trials in cancer patients.  This is my 11th year since I joined this industry.  My path to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry was accidental.

I left Kenya 19 years ago after high school for college.  At the time I was interested in pursuing a career in dentistry.  The plan was to do all the coursework for my first few years in a community college, transfer to a 4-year university to complete my Bachelor’s degree then go to dental school.  I stuck to the plan for the most part.  I went to Santa Monica Community College then transferred to the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) where I got my Bachelors of Science degree in Physiological Science. However, I never went to dental school.  I didn’t even apply.

When I joined UCLA, I had a job on campus at the School of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of the determinants of health and disease in human populations.  Anyone who has worked while going to school full time knows that your dream job is one that requires limited exertion, accommodates your school schedule and pays really well so you can get away with working fewer hours. It seems almost impossible to find a job like that, right? Well, I got that dream job at UCLA.

I was an assistant for 3 professors.  I helped them with any preparation needed for their classes e.g. making copies and doing some research in the library for them which included making copies (again) of journal articles.  This was before journals were available electronically.  I quickly became very proficient in making copies.  You must be thinking, making copies probably didn’t require much skill and therefore didn’t pay that much money, right? Wrong.  This job paid at least twice the minimum wage at the time.  How did they justify that?  I don’t know but I was very grateful I had the job. It turns out proficiency in making copies is a valuable skill after all.

While I was making copies, I passed time by reading the material I was printing – research articles, class notes for the graduate students etc.  Two of the professors did research in cancer and the third focused on HIV/AIDS working with various developing countries including Kenya. Naturally, the professor who had worked in Kenya and I had a lot to talk about.  I did an upper division elective course which was an introduction to Public Health.  I got a general understanding of the field.  This was all new to me and very interesting as I had not been exposed to public health as a discipline growing up in Kenya.

I got my Bachelor’s degree in 2002.  I had planned to take a year off before attending dental school.  Around the time I was supposed to start the application process, I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that I had a genuine interest in Public Health.  I chose to explore this interest in graduate School.  So I didn’t apply to dental school.  I applied to the School of Public Health instead.

The year prior to beginning graduate school, I worked for a research study at UCLA whose focus was on the quality of life of women after treatment for breast cancer.  I was hired to help with recruitment of African-American women.  When I got the job there was none participating in the study.  As part of my recruitment efforts, I went to a lot of support groups for breast cancer patients and also churches in the African-American community.  Participation was simple; an interview to discuss what, if any, effects the cancer treatment had on their health.

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It was quite an eye-opening and touching experience.  The first thing that struck me was how young some of the women were.  The youngest person I met was about 26 years old. After conducting a number of interviews, I realized that these women who had been fortunate to survive cancer were dealing with a lot of challenges after treatment both physical and psychological. One lasting lesson I learnt was if you have a mastectomy as part of your treatment, make sure you get reconstructive breast surgery.  In layman terms, get a boob job.  From the very personal stories shared with me, I saw a difference in how women felt about themselves and the impact it had on their relationships if they had the surgery versus if they had not.

Fast forward to June 2005.  I graduated with my Master’s degree in Public Health with a specialization in Epidemiology. Much to the surprise of my academic advisor and a few other professors, I did not apply to the doctoral program. From my perspective, you went for a PhD if you were interested in teaching. I was not. I had a few friends who I had seen get their doctoral degrees and all I remembered was how tired and miserable they seemed towards the end. I decided that I would only pursue a PhD if I had a very good reason for it.  I did not.  Dental school? That was in my past.

I discovered I enjoyed epidemiology and research very much.  There was enough math and biological science to keep me engaged.  I also liked the versatility it offered.  Your career could be anything from being a shoe-leather epidemiologist, those are the people out in the field figuring out the source of outbreaks and how to control them e.g. Ebola and more recently Zika virus, to a researcher in an office who designs studies and analyzes data.  In my case, I run clinical trials so I get to see the practical application of the methods in research in designing the right studies to determine if drugs are safe and if they are effective in treating diseases before they are made available for sale.

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My dream job at this point in my life was working for an international organization that conducted research in Africa.  I was very passionate about HIV/AIDS.  Every paper that I had written in graduate school was on the topic.  Unfortunately, all the organizations I was interested in working for never responded.  Not a single one.  I had even done an internship between my first and second year in graduate school for one such organization in Kenya but the opportunity offered by my preceptor just wasn’t good enough.

One day I got an e-mail from the Student Adviser at the Department of Epidemiology.  A biotechnology company in the outskirts of Los Angeles was hiring.  This company had made its name by selling drugs that are used as supportive care in the treatment of cancer.  I submitted my resume, got an interview and the rest is history.

Much as I love my job, the hardest part of it is when my work follows me home.  Over the past 3 to 4 years especially, I seem to know more people who have been diagnosed with cancer. It is always difficult when I get the news. In that first conversation I am always looking for signs that the cancer was detected early.  Early detection increases your chances of survival.  It is important to know your family medical history and also what other risk factors you have that may increase your chances of getting a specific type of cancer.  So as we wait for the results, I am hopeful that this person I know has a benign and not malignant tumor.  If it is malignant and therefore the diagnosis is cancer, I hope it is treatable and can be cured.  Only time will tell.

For more information about cancer, access the following websites:

www.who.int/topics/cancer/en/

www.cancer.gov

www.cancer.org

www.nccn.org/patients/default.aspx

Footnote:

This is dedicated to my Aunt Susan, Grandmother Turfosa, Aunt Elizabeth and Brother-in-law Andrew who have all lost their battle to cancer, and to all those who continue the fight.”

To have your story featured, write to mukurima@gmail.com

16 COMMENTS

  1. Judy, I have seen you strive and work extremely hard over the years. Proud of your success. Yes, Cancer is surely affecting a lot of families, we hope a solution can be discovered soon. As for the person you are waiting for remember, everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end. Positive thinking and all will be well. Hang in there tukopamoja.
    We all miss Andrew may he RIP.

    • Thanks Josee. It is true great advances have been made and continue to be made in new treatments for cancer. The challenge is everyone doesn’t have access to them. The two companies I’ve worked for did not even have the intent to market their drugs in any developing country.

  2. Amazing work.
    I think we are all cancered out! Actually now cancer is feared more than HIV/AIDS. Thank you for the work you guys do as you work towards getting a cure to make this dreaded disease history.

  3. Good work there,i wish this could replicate in Africa and especially East Africa to begin with.We barely have any follow up on the cancer patient well being during/ after treatment hence they often face numerous challenges along the way.

    Apart from a few aftercare services from care givers which at times cost money that most of the cancer patients may not be able to afford due to financial constraints,there is need no re-think the approach of follow up programs to accommodate the needs of the poor too.

    We have seen an influx in cancer patients seeking medical attention outside the continent and most recently India has become the hub,the patients end up organizing numerous “harambees”(fund raising) to raise funds for this medical trips only to come back home and succumb to the the disease.

    If this patients had some structured support group outside the medical care facility,maybe they would get valuable information,advise and extra opinion that could have saved them all the hassle of travelling abroad,having to sell property and fundraising all in the name of seeking medical attention abroad that eventually might not be of help but cause more damage.

    We have a long way to go i guess…

    • Thanks Raphael! We have a long way to go at home but we have to start from somewhere. The government has to be willing to invest the resources to bring better treatment options. I understand the dilemma people at home face when their best chance of getting the right treatment is outside Kenya. Unfortunately for those that make it to social media and there are all these fundraising activities, the disease is likely in it’s advanced stages with low chances of survival. Treating cancer is a process that takes months even years for some. Improving treatment options at home is a better way to go.

  4. Wow, I really enjoyed reading this. As a young kenyan college student in U.S, it’s always a joy to read successfully stories of Kenyans who are educated and have nice careers that they enjoy and make a difference here in U.S. thanks.

  5. Thanks Judy for posting. Great to see your journey and the “rollercoaster” of finding your niche 🙂 We need to hear more such journeys. Cancered out…I hear you! I had my own scare last year. Like many other patients who don’t go to hospital early, I was well until I landed in hospital for what at the time looked like erratic blood pressures but left me with preliminary results showing I had a pheochromocytoma. A tumor of the adrenal glands. I remember waiting for 2 weeks for the final results- suddenly the patient and not the doctor. Benign or otherwise- the thought of surgery and recovery, reviewing the stats, thinking through who would do the surgery, would I make it post-op? My final tests were negative. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience, now I feel I can empathize better with my patients and friends and relatives for whom cancer is very real