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Students Share Their Experiences Working in the Field of Cancer

gloved hand uses lab equipment
By Vivian Mason

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that cancer will soon be the leading cause of death in the U.S., overtaking heart disease.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects that cancer will be the number one cause within two years.

Cancer touches people in different ways.  A number of students performed work in the field as a pre-med experience prior to attending school at Uniformed Services University. Their views of cancer come from up close-and-personal glimpses of it—be it through a microscope, a lab result, or patient records. These students also developed a tremendous sense of responsibility regarding what they could do to help the fight against cancer.  Below are three USU students who worked in the field of cancer research before attending USU’s F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine. Their experiences helped them to think critically, independently, and creatively. It also helped confirm their desire to pursue medicine.

chart of number of deaths caused by different types of cancer in males and females

Army 2nd Lt. Sayi Lindeire
“For one year, I worked full time as a research assistant at the Maryland Cancer Registry. There, data are used ‘to monitor trends in cancer incidence over time; and identify differences in cancer incidence by age, sex, race, and geographic location.’ My job consisted of looking through patient records and coding, making graphs, finding trends for the year, etc. I identified, abstracted, and maintained records for all eligible cases of malignancy, while adhering to required standards and procedures. I sifted through a lot of information and tried to make sense of it. My job was to see patterns in patient charts. Interestingly, when I did get a chance to meet actual patients, particularly some of the younger patients, it was quite heart-wrenching to see the reality of how cancer can affect people. All in all, I feel that this position provided me with a tremendous opportunity to immerse myself in research, data collection, analysis, and interpretation of health information. I appreciate the independence that I was given there that allowed me to build my confidence and skill level.”

gloved hands use a syringe to remove fluid from a glass bottle
Military researchers have developed a vaccine that appears to protect women against a recurrence of
breast cancer. The initial work was done through USU. Once the vaccine is mixed with a stimulator,
it is then injected into the skin of a cancer patient. (Photo courtesy of Brooke Army Medical Center) 
Navy Ensign Michael Chisam
“I worked as a surgical technician at a skin cancer center in Fairfax, Virginia, for two years prior to medical school. It was great clinical experience, and it prepared me well. My responsibilities included checking vitals, preparing for and assisting in surgeries, as well as wound care and dressing changes. I had the opportunity to work under four Mohs surgery fellowship-trained dermatologists. They took me under their wings and taught me a ton—from dermatology to medicine to general career advice. These docs became my mentors, and I still keep in touch with them today. Treating skin cancer on a daily basis was very rewarding. Every day, I felt as though I was making a difference. Patients would arrive in the mornings, oftentimes anxious about the surgery before them. But, at the end of the day, they would go home with their cancer treated and feeling better. We treated all types of skin concerns, but the majority of our cases were basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and melanomas. Thankfully, skin cancer survival rates are relatively high, so we saw some truly great results. However, we also had some difficult cases, and those were the ones that stuck with me. Cancer changes your perspective for sure. When I reflect on the experience, I realize how much I learned. I learned how to talk to and care for patients during stressful times. I learned a lot about dermatology, and I also learned some of the warning signs for the more dangerous skin lesions. This work experience has certainly given me more confidence clinically and has enhanced my ability to connect with patients.”

Air Force 2nd Lt. Yejin Yoo 
“I worked as a lab technician at San Francisco State University and assisted with molecular profiling of breast cancer cells. I knew this job would help me when I applied to med school, and I wanted to do lab research that was implicated in patient care for the future. I didn’t deal with any patients who had cancer. I was a bit disconnected from that. But, I worked there knowing that what I did in the lab would likely benefit breast cancer patients in the long run. In hindsight, it made me feel part of developing the bigger cure. Now that I’m in medical school, I sometimes see breast cancer patients. I’m grateful for my prior experience because I know the types of cells that are in my patients’ bodies, how the tumors act, and things like that. The work provided me with not only an incredible opportunity, but also with a solid foundation. It was good validation knowledge for me, and I’ve come to realize that all lab research is important. The entire experience now carries a greater meaning for me.”