CSUF McNair Scholar shares journey to become a cancer researcher

By Kimberly Hardaway 

Cal State Fullerton

I felt my body tremble as the sweat dripped from my hands. Nervous, I dragged my luggage up the steps to the second-floor dorm room, my home for the next eight weeks at a summer research opportunity program.

The other 60 students — undergraduates like me, selected from across the nation for graduate-level research projects — were on average, 40 years younger. At 59, I’m old enough to be their grandmother. I knew I had to be courageous enough to take that giant leap. My goals to increase my knowledge of graduate studies and gain experience conducting research that will one day benefit cancer patients were within reach.

“Wow, I can’t believe I’m here. This can’t be real,” I thought.

I’d put my education on hold several times to battle cancer three times over the past 18 years. And now, as a Cal State Fullerton McNair Scholar my mission was to research how a Mediterranean diet can reduce inflammation and even slow progression of the blood cancers myeloproliferative neoplasms. I was discovering information that could empower patients to self-manage their symptoms and pain.

I sat down at the desk, placed my trembling hands over my face and wiped away tears. Slamming doors and loud chatter brought me back to reality, and soon fear gave way to pride and appreciation.

The program was held at the University of California, Irvine, where I worked with researchers in the Departments of Epidemiology and Medicine to study the effects of a diet rich in whole grains, nuts and olive oil. I learned many of the other female African American students chose science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs as their majors, because they felt they had a better chance of finding a job in the related fields. Their research projects analyzed absorption of materials on thin, gold films, studied how light is diffused on skin tissue and investigated noninvasive procedures for developing fetal imaging technology.

The students and I discovered common interests in music, and the majority of them were very respectful. Most of them had never visited California prior to our summer research program. We were enthusiastic about our shared opportunity, but they were astonished after learning about my life, what I had overcome, what I had achieved, and what I plan to accomplish in the future. Several young students also professed their passion for changing women’s health and women’s roles in careers dominated by men.

The laboratory work was very interesting, but sometimes repetitive as my tasks included reading through and reviewing selected literature. The research required diligence to ensure only the relevant literature would be used for the study, before the lead professor and his associates could progress to obtaining blood, saliva and stool samples.

The graduate students who became our mentors went out of their way to make sure we understood certain processes and assignments.

As an undergraduate student, this experience was very helpful and insightful. I gained more confidence while being exposed to this type of research, which I hope will push my project to the next level. Because I crave research, I hope to have more opportunities that I can use to solidify my quest for change for African American women.

There were many bittersweet moments when I thought about the past years battling cancer. I had not dared to dream of such an opportunity, or making it so far in life, let alone my education. Many times, during my lab work, I recalled sitting in that lounge chair in the Infusion Center, at Kaiser Hospital, feeling the chemo slowly entering my veins.

I have so much yet to do. One day, my research could help others to survive cancer, and I want to be part of groundbreaking research that gives others hope.

At times, I questioned why I was putting myself through this process. But my daughters and granddaughter each had an opportunity to visit, and through my experience, my granddaughter gained an early glimpse of university life. I want her to have such opportunities too, and through my encouragement she will attend college.

I’m so grateful for this experience. This research helps elevate my experience and knowledge as I move toward a graduate program.

I might always be nervous before finding my courage, but this experience has profoundly changed me. As in research, each challenge offers proof. This proved to me that no matter what age you are and what adversity you may have gone through, you can still live life and continue achieving your goals.

Kimberly Hardaway is a senior at CSUF and expects to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in human services, and an emphasis in mental health. She plans to earn a doctorate in social and behavioral health and conduct research geared toward helping African American women breast cancer survivors live healthier through lifestyle modification. She wants to develop her own nonprofit program of mindfulness and stress management to assist cancer survivors and their families.

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