ACTION Preps Kentucky High Schoolers for Cancer Careers Even Through the Pandemic

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 22, 2021)  Like many teenagers in Appalachia, Chezney Boothe knows the reality of losing a loved one to cancer all too well.

“My paternal grandmother had colon cancer, and she passed away before I was born,” said the rising high school junior from Hazard, Kentucky. “The experience of not knowing her is what really drove me to want to do something about it in my community.”

Last year, Boothe applied and was accepted to the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center’s Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) Program, which takes up to 20 high school students every other year. ACTION offers Appalachian Kentucky high school and undergraduate students the opportunity to gain cancer research, clinical, outreach and educational experiences that will enrich their interest in pursuing a future cancer-focused career. 

Since its inception, ACTION has been designed to train and educate students to help them make a difference in their own communities — and to ultimately become prepared to pursue a cancer-focused career. Matthew Sanders of London, Kentucky, also a rising junior, is another of the ACTION program participants. Sanders says ACTION has already opened his eyes to how widespread cancer is not just in the U.S., but specifically in Kentucky.

“Growing up, I realized cancer was a problem,” he said. “But it wasn't until I was part of this program that I realized it was way worse where I'm from.”

ACTION’s two-year program provides students with research and clinical experience through both Markey and UK HealthCare, mentoring, professional development, and outreach opportunities in their own communities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the ACTION activities were virtual for the past year, but the high school program was able to resume in hybrid form this summer. For the first three weeks, students remained virtual but performed hands-on research at home using fruit flies as a model to study cancer genetics, followed by two weeks of in-person living and learning on UK’s campus.

Navigating the pandemic to get students back on campus this summer was a challenge, but worth the effort, says ACTION Director Nathan Vanderford, Ph.D.

“For months, we thought that we would not be able to have an in-person program at all again this year,” Vanderford said. “But the changing COVID protocols allowed us to get the students on campus for two weeks. The university did a great job working with us in a short timeframe to make the two weeks a reality. In the end, everything turned out great.”

This year’s students were excited to be in-person on the UK campus, with Sanders noting how the time together has helped the group bond.

“Just over the last week and a half, I've made some true friends,” Sanders said. “I was surprised to see how much I have in common with people all across Eastern Kentucky.”

While on campus, the students live in residence halls and learn about cancer through workshops and by engaging with guest speakers. The experience not only introduces them to cancer research and clinical oncology, but also to life in college, ultimately preparing them for life away from home. Students also spend their evenings and weekends socializing and participating in group activities, like attending a Lexington Legends game and going to Kings Island for a day.

“The opportunity to actually live on a college campus for a couple of weeks and get some experience with college life and getting to be in classes — or in this case, workshops — has been a great experience,” said Boothe. “I'm really looking forward to being in a lab next summer.”

Outside of the residential camp and campus visits, students are encouraged to bring their research and knowledge of cancer back to their communities to incorporate lifestyle changes and behaviors that can help prevent cancer. The program encourages each student to plan community outreach events that focuses on cancer education and awareness.

“Students are amazed to learn that Kentucky ranks first in the nation in cancer incidence and mortality rates, and that those rates are highest in the Appalachian counties where they live,” Vanderford said. “This motivates the students to share the information they learn in ACTION with people in their own communities — this ranges from encouraging people to stop risky behaviors like tobacco use, to go to the doctor more frequently, and to generally become more informed about cancer.”

“I really want to be able to bring what I learned back to my community and help stop the cancer burden in my county, so people don't lose their loved ones like I did,” said Sanders.

Both students have expressed an interest in pursuing a career in medicine, specifically in oncology.

“I would absolutely recommend this program, especially if there aren't a lot of scientific opportunities in students’ home communities or schools,” Boothe said. “You get to take classes but without the added pressure of getting good grades. It's been a great opportunity.”

The high school students participate in the residential camp on UK’s campus for two years during the summers, and they will engage in activities throughout the rest of the year. They’ll return to campus once a month during the school year for ongoing education in the program.

“ACTION is probably the best opportunity I've had in my life so far,” Sanders said. “I'm so glad I've been a part of this program. It's given me so much.”

Throughout COVID, this year’s group of ACTION students have also been working on a new book of essays that focuses on their experience with cancer, including their thoughts on why the disease is so prevalent in their communities and what they think could be done to address the problem. Additionally, each student is documenting cancer in their community through photography, which will be exhibited in art galleries and other locations across Central and Eastern Kentucky.

“These students are phenomenal; they exceed our expectations constantly,” Vanderford said. “This group is creative and bright. We know they will all accomplish great things as they continue through their educational careers.”