by Aidan McGeath
Cancer starts small with a single cell spiraling out of control. Yet this single, infinitesimally small speck of nothingness holds the power to snuff out a life. We’ve all been captivated by cancer’s nebulous grip or have watched as lives are torn asunder beneath the might of a single, solitary cell. It is those who stand tall, straighten their backs against the onslaught, and do something — anything — to help, who are the most admirable. Shantell Nolen is one such woman.
Nolen, a UCI graduate student in the Department of Epidemiology, lost her great-grandmother to cancer. The grief which rippled through her family inspired Nolen to pursue a future in the fast-developing cancer field. Using her personal experience as a kick-off point, she developed a specified interest—the type of research which works to improve the quality of life for cancer patients like her late great-grandmother. Rehabilitation and cognitive function, nutrition and exercise are among those interests which Nolen holds dear.
Nolen conducts research on brain cancer at the UCI Medical Center and, in doing so, has grown close to a number of cancer patients; learning their stories and feeling every step of the arduous journeys which stand before them. The work Nolen has done at the medical center inspired her to take the next steps toward giving back to the community she spends so much of her time amongst.
Today, in addition to her graduate work with the university, Nolen works closely with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults and their innovative 4k For Cancer program. In this program, runners and cyclists cross the breadth of the United States — a staggering 4,500+ miles — to raise awareness and direct attention toward those young people suffering from cancer. Nolen is a director for the Portland Ride, overseeing a team of thirty contestants. Their venture dawns in Baltimore, Maryland and continues for weeks until Nolen’s team finally reaches the end of their incredible trek at Portland, Oregon. Nolen’s role is both simple and incredibly difficult all at once. Simply put, she oversees morale — ensuring that her team of thirty athletes is all in good spirits for the duration of their trek. This will be Nolen’s third year making the ride.
As 4k For Cancer is a non-profit program, its funding is generated exclusively through donations. The sheer volume of cooperation which 4k For Cancer generates is staggering. Generous bicycle companies donate the cycles which carry Nolen’s teammates on their exhaustive expedition. Donors can sponsor individual runners or cyclists and, in doing so, send money directly to funding treatments for cancer patients, as not a cent of these donations goes to the athletes. Each of the five teams’ goal is to raise a total of one million dollars for their team. This money is then divvied into a pair of scholarships — two per team, for a grand total of ten scholarships overall — and sent as grants to either cancer patients or to students whose parents suffer from cancer. The remainder of the funds is then allocated to the all-important cause of cancer research. Nolen personally claims it is rewarding to see that funds are allocated to the right places.
“I love hearing people’s stories and seeing how financially burdened people can be but people can still find ways to get by,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to be inspired by the money going to a good cause.”
Along their trip, doors are opened for 4k For Cancer’s runners and cyclists — cancer survivors, churches and hospitable individuals nationwide do what they can to support the contestants. Every ten days, Nolen and her team take a rest break and visit with cancer patients in the cities they stop at. They meet with cancer patients in hospitals and clinics, performing acts of community service even on their off days.
Nolen claims that she appreciates the Ulman Cancer Fund so much because they cater specifically to young patients.
“I like this the best, because we are young adults, meeting people who are going through the same things that [we] are, and they’re doing all this on top of battling cancer. It requires a lot of strength,” she said.
Along their upcoming trek, Nolen’s team will meet with patients who go through the same struggles as your average UCI student. Yet, in addition, these patients must endure the exhaustive agony of battling cancer day after day.
To Nolen, it is precisely this connection which matters most to her — a peer-to-peer relationship with cancer patients.