Krystal Christopher’s mind raced with questions after an aunt she was close to died from stomach cancer in 2013. An immigrant from Antigua, her aunt wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late. The disease already had spread to her stomach and chest.
“I just remember thinking, ‘How does this happen?’” Christopher said.
“Where did we lose track of her health? Socioeconomically, she wasn’t the best off. Would that have changed the outcome if she had access to the resources she needed?”
Christopher, now a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the UH College of Education, has channeled her frustration into action. She’s part of the inaugural class of UH students selected to participate in a new collaboration between UH and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center that’s aimed at reducing cancer rates and increasing survivorship among traditionally underserved populations.
The project, called the UHAND Partnership, also seeks to grow a diverse pipeline of cancer researchers and doctors who reflect and better understand the communities they serve. UH students and junior faculty members in the program are paired with mentors from UH and MD Anderson, as well as mentors from community organizations, so they gain invaluable research and in-the-trenches experience.
“The UHAND program is the exact reason I came to Houston,” said Christopher, who grew up in Antigua and Florida and was the first in her family to graduate from college. “I would have talks with my old boss and say, ‘If there was any chance I could get an opportunity to work in the Med Center, it would be perfect.’”
UHAND co-director Lorraine Reitzel, who chairs the department of psychological, health and learning sciences in the UH College of Education, said program participants all are driven to address the troubling disparities in cancer risk, rates and outcomes among racial and ethnic groups. According to the American Cancer Society, the disease is the leading cause of death among Hispanics, and African Americans have the highest death rate for most cancers.
A survivor of thyroid cancer, Reitzel said she feels “blessed” she had access to top-notch medical care. “Not everyone has that experience,” she said. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
UHAND co-director Lorna McNeill, who chairs MD Anderson’s department of health disparities research, said she’s inspired by the students’ determination—many want to attend medical school—and passion. “They are interested in gaining knowledge they can bring back to the community,” she said.
The program, supported by a $1.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, had its official launch ceremony in August.
“What a pleasure it was to celebrate the early achievement of our collaboration!” UH President Renu Khator tweeted after the event.
“When two leading institutions share a vision for a community,” MD Anderson President Peter WT Pisters added, “transformative things can happen.”