Featured MassKicker

Christabel Cheung

Creating strong evidence based in science is a powerful way to inform change. The populations and issues that researchers focus on become the voices and concerns that clinicians, policy makers, and funders hear.

Christabel Cheung is another young mAss Kicker on the rise! She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles focused on Health Disparities in the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer population. She earned her Master of Social Welfare degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 2006. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Before returning to academia, she was the Executive Director of San Francisco Village, a nonprofit startup dedicated to helping older adults remain healthy and safe in their own homes by building a path of sustainability and acceptance. She has had a very interesting journey!  We were very fortunate to connect with her and ask her a few questions.

mK: Thanks for doing this Christabel!  How did you find out about your diagnosis?
CC: It was horrible. While I was standing in line at the post office, I got a call on my cell from a doctor that I had never seen before. He was pinch-hitting for the doctor that I had gone to see the day before, because I thought I had the flu or mono. Anyway, this doctor whom I had never met before told me over the phone that I had “a type of cancer called lymphoma.” The call dropped. I had to race back to my desk at work to call him back. And the rest of what he said was just “blah, blah, blah” to me. To this day, I have never met the doctor who told me I had cancer.

mK: Whoa.  What were your symptoms?
CC: I have to admit, it didn’t occur to me that I had symptoms of anything other than maybe the flu or mono, much less cancer. But I quickly learned that I had all the textbook symptoms of lymphoma: severe weight loss, night sweats, fever, itchy skin, swollen lymph nodes throughout my body, rapid heart rate and difficulty swallowing – the masses were crushing my heart, lungs and esophagus.

mK: Hindsight is 20/20.  Definitely puts things in perspective!  How and Why did you get involved in research?
CC: After I finished cancer treatments for my second diagnosis of hodgkin’s lymphoma, I was recruited to substitute for one of my former lecturers at UC Berkeley, my alma mater. While I was on the teaching faculty at UC Berkeley, Dr. Jim Midgley, the former dean of the School of Social Welfare sat me down one day and asked why I wasn’t getting my PhD. He talked to me at length about what I would be getting into, and most importantly, he encouraged me and said that he believed in my ability to make a meaningful contribution to research on cancer survivorship. So, how I got into research is by way of a mentor who had a vision of me thriving before I could even believe in myself. And that’s how it’s been ever since. I’ve continued to find amazingly generous mentors who are confident in my capacity to make a difference and keep pushing me to the edge.

As far as why… I got involved in research, because I struggled so much as a cancer patient who felt like my needs as a young adult were not being addressed. I don’t think most people know what it’s like to be a patient until it strikes them personally, which means that many of the people who make decisions and provide care are not fully aware of the impact of their actions on the lives of real people. I want to inspire change so that young adult cancer survivors can keep thriving every single day past their diagnosis.

mK: Mentors play a huge role in professional development!  Why is research so important? 
CCCreating strong evidence based in science is a powerful way to inform change. The populations and issues that researchers focus on become the voices and concerns that clinicians, policy makers, and funders hear.

mK: What motivates you?
CC: It motivates me to meet other young adult cancer survivors who have the courage to put their real stories out there to educate and inspire something better. I don’t think “healthy” people realize how much courage that takes – to be a cancer story – but it takes a crap ton.

mK: Right!  Who is your personal hero or are your heroes?
CC: Pretty much all the people that I keep in my post-cancer life are my heroes in one way or another. Since cancer, I’ve had to only surround myself with people that I trust and respect. My life is VIP only. Sorry, not sorry.

mK: HAHAHA!  It’s a club no one wants to join, but once you find people like you in the club… things become more bearable. What makes you laugh, cry, angry?
CC: I laugh all the time – sometimes inappropriately. I’m not much of a crier, unless I’m laughing until I cry. And I don’t really get angry unless someone is being mistreated. Then, you don’t want to mess with me.

mK: What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever done?
CC: I created my alter-ego Jade Gangster, who blogs about chronically illin’ with young adult cancer. She gets real and real funny at www.jadegangster.com

mK: What would you say is the toughest challenge a survivor faces?
CC: I can only speak for myself, but in addition to all the new issues cancer brings, whatever challenges I had before cancer, they got harder once cancer hit.

mK: What is your guilty pleasure?
CC: Not very exciting, but I love beach walks with my dog just as the sun is rising or setting.

mK: OK, random question time… If you could go back to any age you want for a month, what would you choose? Why?
CC: I would never want to go back.

mK: What are you up to now?
CC: I’m in my second year of the PhD program in social welfare at UCLA and my doctoral research is focused on young adult cancer survivorshipunder the mentorship of Dr. Rob Schilling. I work as a project director for Dr. Brad Zebrack at the University of Michigan  on his adolescent and young adult cancer survivorship research, and I’m also a doctoral student researcher for Dr. Ninez Ponce’s study at UCLA called, Empowering CHOices in Breast Cancer Treatment (ECHO). The rest of the time, I go for LSD (long slow distance, that’s what they called it in pulmonary rehab) walks with my service dog, Malcolm, and yoga is a regular part of my life.

mK: Physical activity is so important! Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
CC: Don’t second guess your own gut feelings about what you want to do or not do. You are the only one who has to live with the consequences on your health and your life. Many of the people who are opinionated and pressuring you to make one decision over another might not even be in your life a few years from now.

mK: Tell us something about yourself that people probably didn’t know… anything.
CC: One of the things that really affected my cancer care is that I come from an unstable family situation. So, I had no family members to rely on for practical and emotional support during the course of my care. This must be true for other patients besides me. Young adult patients who don’t have support from their families of origin are particularly vulnerable, because we probably haven’t yet established another support network that can handle cancer.

mK: Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
CC: The name “masskickers” makes me laugh.

Christabel Cheung: Rising leader in young adult social work, driven young adult cancer thriver, hard-core gangsta, canine companion, LSD (long slow walk) fanatic, and cool gal.  We’ll definitely keep an eye on all your future accomplishments!

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