My Path into the Cancer Field

by Alique Topalian PhD, MPHSurvivor, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) August 19, 2022View more posts from Alique Topalian PhD, MPH

I was seven years old the first time I told my mom I wanted to grow up to be a “talking doctor.” If that does not scream childhood cancer survivor, I am not sure what does. I grew up knowing that I wanted to help others like myself, who faced cancer head-on and made it out on the other side. My family helped to found the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry because so many Armenians had registered to see if they were a match during my first diagnosis with AML. I grew up acting as a spokesperson for this incredible organization and continue to do so today. I then went on to lobby on Capitol Hill at 10 years old and was Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Girl of the Year at age 12. These experiences continued to show me a path into the cancer field where I felt like I belonged.

I went on to do my B.A. in Psychology hoping to one day achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a “talking doctor.” But Ph.D. programs had another idea in mind. I did not get in and decided to go for my Master of Public Health. During this program, I continued working in the field of mental health while learning about a whole new world of psychosocial support services. Opening my eyes to this area of the field changed my lifelong goal, and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Health Promotion and Education.

One year after my 2020 Ph.D. graduation I was working on my first grant for cancer survivors with the proud feeling that all of life had led me to that moment. Little did I know that two weeks later I would relapse with AML after 22 years. I could not understand why this would happen to me despite dedicating my life to helping others.

After my diagnosis, I had all the time in the world. I took advantage of every psychosocial support service available to me. Art therapy, music therapy, traditional therapy, horticulture therapy, narrative therapy, support groups, meaning-centered psychotherapy, nutrition counseling, integrative medicine, palliative care, oncology exercise programs… I’ve done it all. I knew that once I made it through this relapse, I wanted to use all these experiences to help improve the lives of other patients. I met with as many care providers as I could, and did literature reviews on treatment and side effects using my six-month hospital stay to broaden my mind and expand on what I knew about oncology, survivorship, and supportive services. I became involved in many nonprofits and advocacy organizations. I wanted to find my place. The place where this story, this experience, could be used to help others.

Finally, after a year out of work for treatment, I went back to my career. Stronger, better, and smarter than ever. I used this network I built to find my way, to start sharing my story on state, regional, and national platforms. I became involved with the cancer center where I now work and was able to begin collaborating on projects. My first undertaking is a cancer center-wide needs assessment. Do our patients feel like they are getting the supportive services they need? What services do they want to see? How do they want to get these resources delivered or hear about events in their community?

I utilized partnerships to improve care for patients by having an incredible donation of wellness bags to help them along their journey (Thank you Steven G. Cancer Foundation!). Working with patients to provide services that support them in their mission to beat cancer, to support them, mind, body, and spirit, is where I belong. I have only been back since March, and I can already see the positive impact these efforts will have on our patients.

No one should have to face cancer alone, without resources, and without their needs being met. I will continue to advocate for patients one step at a time, growing in passion, knowledge, and skill. I want to be a voice for the voiceless, an advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, provide education for patients and providers about resources, build partnerships and collaborations, secure research funding, increase patient engagement, and continuously evaluate my efforts in programming and research so the field as a whole is able to grow and implement the future best practices of the field.

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