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Future leaders in women’s health

Public health students take national stage to present research

By Taylor Utzig

When Sarah Strom was a junior in high school, her best friend’s mother began to suffer from a chronic cough and shoulder pain. Strom watched as she went from clinic to clinic, not having her symptoms taken seriously and encountering months of testing delays. By the time she received her diagnosis, she had stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain and liver. “Catching it even a few months earlier could have greatly improved her prognosis,” says Strom. “At the time, it made me realize that what happened to my friend’s mom is pervasive and could happen to anyone’s loved one.”

In college, Strom witnessed it again, this time to a woman who was told the lump in her breast wasn’t malignant because she was “too young for breast cancer.” It took nearly a year for her to learn that it was, in fact, breast cancer and it had already metastasized. “These experiences inspire me to seek out why diagnosis delays occur for young women and how to prevent them in the future,” says Strom. She made the decision to study public health sciences at Loyola University Chicago’s Parkinson School of Health Science and Public Health.

Now in her senior year, she’s already on her way to making an impact in the public health field by developing research that examines how breast cancer survivors under the age of 45 navigate their diagnosis. This fall, she will present that research at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA’s) annual meeting.

“This research aims to identify opportunities to increase awareness of breast cancer risk among young women and their healthcare providers to ensure these women receive timely and appropriate care,” she says. “I hope that presenting the findings of this research at a national organization like APHA will expose this issue to the scientific community, so that more research will be done to address disparities that women face.”

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 43,600 women will die from breast cancer in the United States this year. What’s most concerning is that women under the age of 40 have higher mortality rates and lower representation in clinical research compared to their older counterparts. Because of this, little is known about how younger women seek and manage treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis and how they negotiate the barriers which can result in delays; a fact that Strom hopes to change with her research.

Strom isn’t the only Parkinson student interested in improving women’s health. Natalie Contreras, a senior in Parkinson’s Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) program, is studying the benefits of community-based health care centers and how they can improve maternal, newborn, and child health. “Community-based health care centers are often overlooked in communities,” says Contreras. “After graduating in December, I hope to work for a community-based organization, so I can continue to research ways we can improve these centers and, in turn, the health of people within the community.”

Contreras and Strom will be the first Parkinson undergraduates to represent Loyola at the APHA annual meeting, a significant milestone for the BSPH program, which launched in 2019. “APHA is the preeminent organization for public health professionals,” says Julie Darnell, associate professor and director of the BSPH program. “Having students–especially as young as undergrads–join professionals at the APHA Annual Meeting initiates them into public health practice.”

Strengthened by Loyola’s Jesuit mission, the Parkinson School is committed to educating students about health disparities and encourages them to develop solutions to minimize those inequities. “I'm inspired by the work of Parkinson faculty and my fellow students to make our society more just and equitable,” says Strom. “It gives me so much hope for the future, knowing that we are working to better the world around us.”

Learn more about research opportunities at the Parkinson School