Like many teenagers in Appalachia, Chezney Boothe understands the reality of losing a loved one to cancer.
“My paternal grandmother had colon cancer, and she passed away before I was born,” said the high school junior from Hazard. “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 for 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.
ACTION was designed to train and educate students to help them make a difference in their own communities — and to ultimately prepare for a cancer-focused career. The 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 past 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. The students participate in the residential camp on UK’s campus for two years during the summers and return to campus once a month during the school year for ongoing education in the program.
While on campus, the students live in residence halls and learn about cancer through workshops and by engaging with guest speakers.
Outside of the residential camp and campus visits, students are encouraged to take their research and knowledge 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 focus 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,” ACTION Director Nathan 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.”
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. Each student is also 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.”