Believe That–Researching AYA Cancer with Dr. Brad Zebrack


The Zebrack Family-Brad, Sierra, JoanneWhen I first thought about pursuing a PhD on surviving young adult cancer, I checked out what had already been done, Googling “young adult cancer survivorship,” “young adult cancer psychosocial,” and “aya cancer social work.” (AYA stands for adolescent and young adult.) The first search term produced 4 out of the first 10 articles authored by BJ Zebrack, the second resulted in 5 out of 10 by him, and the third gave me a remarkable 9 out of 10 articles by BJ Zebrack.

So, I read everything that “BJ Zebrack” published, even skimming through his 1999 dissertation, “Living beyond the sword of Damocles: the quality of life of long-term survivors of leukemia and lymphoma.” His work was much of what I had been wanting to know about young adult cancer and living for a while afterwards–one exception, he also wrote on pediatric cancer. Don’t freak. I don’t hate on kids. I just don’t want to research them.

Malcolm laughs behind The Big HouseWho is BJ Zebrack??

Googling some more, I found out that he was on Twitter, had a LinkedIn account (annoying invention), and was now a professor at the University of Michigan. But the thing that really caught my eye was an interview he gave to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The article opened his biosketch with, “Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 26, Brad Zebrack, PhD, MSW, MPH …”

WHAAA?!!!!!! A cancer gangster?? I need to talk to this guy.

But I waited. I waited until after I started the PhD program at UCLA, and talked to a couple professors about the etiquette of contacting other scholars.

When I finally called him, Dr. Zebrack answered my questions about his research and was super encouraging about my scholarship. Towards the end of our chat, I was able to mention that I was also a cancer survivor, and asked him for some professional advice from one survivor to another entering this field. He was a whole lot of cool about it.

Dr. Brad Zebrack & me, MICHR Health Disparities Summer clinical research fellowship 2014 at the University of Michigan

This past summer, I got to learn straight from the master himself–over the course of 11 weeks at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was lucky to be awarded a health disparities research fellowship by the Michigan Institute of Clinical and Health Research (MICHR) with Dr. Zebrack as my research mentor. I learned a ton, and I’ve got a ton more to go–I’m talking to you, multivariate analysis of latent variables.

At the end of the summer, I asked Dr. Zebrack if he had any parting professional advice for me. He said, “Believe in yourself.”

Because I’m a jerk, I had to strain to keep my eyeballs still in their sockets when he said this–not allow them to snap back into my skull like the A in AYA. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve regressed developmentally from being suspended in the world of the half-living-and-half-dying for so many years, or if I’m just an asshole.

Cal the Cat meets Malcolm DogAnyway, all the research learning was amazing, and I was also lucky enough to come to know that Dr. Zebrack’s family is pretty dope too. His wife, Joanne, has been with him since they were in their 20’s, before his cancer diagnosis; his 11-year-old daughter loves sports and wears zippers for earrings; Cal the cat greets humans like a dog.

And I will never forget how Joanne shared her memory of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and their struggles, closing that narrative by saying, “Brad’s cancer used to be my favorite story to tell, but now, Sierra (their daughter) is my favorite story.” I laughed when she said this, but I couldn’t stop thinking back on that moment and the wisdom in it.

You can live after cancer long enough and good enough for the people around you to stop saying that your cancer is the most interesting thing about their relationship to you.

Believe that.

9 Responses to Believe That–Researching AYA Cancer with Dr. Brad Zebrack

  1. Anonymous says:

    May I simply just say what a relief to find someone who really knows what they are talking about on the web.

    You actually understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
    A lot more people need to look at this and understand this side of your story.
    I can’t believe you are not more popular given that you definitely possess the gift.

  2. C says:

    I’m so glad I found your blog! I am also a survivor, coming to you live from the Land of Slashed Necks (thyroid). I am researching who the big names are in AYA survivorship as I prepare for a career change to a career in social work and public health. It’s nice to read about another survivor taking this experience to make things better for those who will come after us; that makes at least two of you now. Woo hoo!

  3. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?

    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content.

    Please let me know. Thanks

    • Jade Gangster says:

      Sure. Would appreciate you sharing my blog, as long as it’s simply that, and not used to promote any product or specific purpose. Thanks for the shout.

  4. Joanne Kelleher says:

    Hey there! I need my 12 year old to show me I can write a comment on a blog-lol!! What a beautiful article–You’re a great writer! I sent it to my whole family-parents, sisters, bro-in-laws, nieces and nephews!! You rock! Thanks for sharing your time (and adorable dog) with us. 🙂

    • Jade Gangster says:

      Hey Joanne! Thank YOU!! Makes me smile that you read the post and got to share it with your people. Seriously grateful for your super warm welcome this summer, and that we got to hang out! Hope you’re having some Fall fun in A2.

  5. Sierra Kelleher says:

    That’s me! I’m 12 now, and I remember you and your dog. I love the pictures. They are so accurate. Yes, I wear zippers, wings, birds, and anythings that can be made into an earring. Great research report! -Sierra

    • Jade Gangster says:

      SIERRA!!! You crack me up with all the things you turn into earrings. That’s right, 12-years-old…A.mazing…belated HBD to you! Thanks for peeping my blog and glad you like. Hi from Malcolm doggie to Cal. 😀

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