Cancer plagues Appalachia, so a UK program brings high-school and college students from the region into the study of it

Professor Nathan Vanderford with the students’ book and photographs (UK photo by Pete Comparoni)

The nation’s highest cancer rates are in Appalachia, especially in Appalachian Kentucky. But the state is also home to an effort to get young people from the region involved in research to prevent and cure cancer.

It’s at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center, where college and high-school students from Appalachian Kentucky can explore research, clinical care and education “to help them learn more about pursuing careers in fighting cancer,” Tom Martin of Richmond’s WEKU-FM reports for The Daily Yonder.

The program is called ACTION, for Appalachian Career Training in Oncology, the study and treatment of cancer. It’s directed by Nathan Vanderford, an associate professor of toxicology and cancer biology. He is editor of a book of student essays, Cancer Crisis in Appalachia: Kentucky Students Take ACTION , published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2020. A second edition, being edited by Vanderford and Chris Pritchard, is forthcoming.

Vanderford told Martin, “We truly do have a cancer crisis in Appalachian Kentucky. The state continues to rate number one in overall cancer incidence and mortality rates. And so it’s critically important that we bring awareness to this fact across the state, and particularly in Eastern Kentucky,” which lacks oncology professionals and is distant from health-care centers.

“We are on a mission, and we think it’s really important to train the next generation of oncology professionals who are going to tackle the cancer problem in Appalachian Kentucky, and to have those be individuals who were born and raised and have a personal understanding of the issues that the area faces,” Vanderford said. “And who best to do that than the youth of the region?”

Vanderford is from Appalachia, and lost his father to lung cancer in 2010. He told Martin that’s when he “became really passionate about cancer and cancer disparities. . . . Just shortly thereafter, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and luckily she was diagnosed early and went through some successful treatment and she’s OK today. So from a personal perspective . . . I’m deeply passionate about this work because of that. But in general, I just absolutely love working with students. It’s just so exciting to work with students, particularly students from Eastern Kentucky. We have amazing students in this state and they just need opportunities. In many of these rural areas, there’s fewer opportunities, outstanding students, and they can just excel when given opportunities like this to take the ball and run with it, so to speak.”

Appalachian Kentucky students who are interested in applying to participate in ACTION may find information on the Markey Cancer Center website. The deadline for high-school students apply is May 13. The deadline for college-student applications has passed for this year. For more on the students’ work, including photography that they used to illustrate their writings, click here.

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