The Disease That Brought My Family Pain, Changed My Life Forever

women in stem fields

As a kid, I always wanted to be a cancer researcher. I always wanted to be the person to find a cure for breast cancer because I watched my mom die from the disease at 6 years old. At the age of 27, my dreams became a reality. I conduct cancer research at Emory University.


In research efforts, the field of oncology is growing. So many studies, trials, and experiments are being conducted with one common goal in mind… to understand cancer cells. If we can understand the cells, we have better chances of killing or preventing them from growth. The issue lies with the fact that cancer cells form from mutations. We cannot prevent cell growth, it’s vital for life, so we are trying to learn all of the DNA mutations that typically lead to cancer growth. This is why genetic testing is so important. It’s as simple as getting blood drawn and having it sent to a lab for analyses. It typically takes 2-3 weeks for results. I did it over the summer. It analyzes your blood for the mutations that we know of, as of right now, that are known to cause cancer. BRCA 1 & 2 mutations for breast cancer is a great example.


Another new innovation is proton therapy. Within fractions of a second, hydrogen atoms are separated into negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons. The protons are then injected into a vacuum tube into a linear accelerator and in only a few microseconds, the protons’ energy reaches 7 million electron volts. The proton therapy treatment is said to be less harmful than traditional radiation treatments. With proton therapy, there is less radiation dose outside of the tumor. In regular radiation therapy, x-rays continue to give radiation doses as they leave the person's body. This means that radiation damages nearby healthy tissues, possibly causing side effects. The downsides however are that this treatment is much more expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Also, because of the complexity of the machine, its cost to the hospital is quite large, so many facilities do not have the funding to invest in one. Also, and most importantly, this new treatment cannot be used for every cancer type. 


The world of medicine is ever-revolving. That’s the beautiful thing. Education and awareness of the disease itself is crucial, and unfortunately, that is what I have realized so much of the public lack. I have spent my time in 2018 acting as a resource to the community. From conducting a course focused on minorities in STEM at Clark Atlanta University to hosting a Q&A discussion panel at a local women and children’s day shelter in Atlanta. With plans to conduct more seminars and courses at colleges and universities in 2019,  I am a firm believer in knowledge is power. The more awareness, the better prevention. 

Social Media: @thereal_ashleybanks & @gonaturallymary


Ashley Guest writer.png

Ashley is a current cancer researcher at Emory University. She has obtained her Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is a PhD candidate in cancer biology.