The Ohio State community will soon have the opportunity to learn about the experiences of its young adult cancer survivors through one student’s senior thesis.
“Stronger than Ever” is set to be a year-long narrative and photographic project that will showcase young adult cancer survivors in the OSU and Columbus community. Created by Heidi Liou, a fourth-year in fashion and retail studies, the goal of the project is to learn about the experiences of college-aged cancer survivors and offer insight on how they were made it through a difficult time.
Her decision to pursue the project as her senior thesis was based on what she experienced when her friends’ loved ones lost their lives to cancer.
“It happened twice where my friends’ parent passed away due to cancer and I just had no words,” Liou said. “I didn’t want to say ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s the one thing I didn’t want to say.”
Attending cancer walks, doing bike rides with Pelotonia and raising money didn’t seem to be enough, Liou said.
“I felt like that wasn’t doing much by me going to a walk once a year,” Liou said. “I really pondered the question of, ‘How do I help more? How do I learn more?’ And I felt I needed to jump into it somehow.”
After learning about a Pelotonia grant from a friend, Liou applied for the Undergraduate Pelotonia Fellowship Program, which awards fellows a $12,000 annual stipend, according to the program website. Liou was notified through email April 30 that she received the grant.
“I just felt like, I’m so glad that Pelotonia is investing in me to complete this project because it’s not just about finding a cure for cancer but spreading awareness of cancer and how it’s affecting people,” she said.
Candace Stout, an art education and policy professor and Liou’s research mentor, said Liou was one of the rare instances when a Pelotonia grant was given to an applicant in a non-medical major.
“It’s my understanding that very few of these recipients are outside of medicine and the sciences,” Stout said.
Stout, who met Liou through her Introduction to Visual Culture course, was impressed by her ideas and what she hoped to accomplish through her research.
“We’ve got a young researcher in her early 20s seeking out and interacting with research participants in her generation directly. That’s what I think was so cool about this project,” Stout said.
Liou draws inspiration for “Stronger than Ever” from Humans of New York, a blog run by American photographer Brandon Stanton. Stanton pairs portraits with captions to offer a small snippet into a New York City resident’s life, which is similar to what Liou wants to offer with her project.
The photographer said she wants the stories to be short, sweet and attention-grabbing, because college students respond more to pictures than just text. Liou will focus her project on young adult cancer survivors because she feels that she can better connect with peers her age.
“There are a lot of young adult cancer survivors,” Liou said. “They’re people just like us.”
According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, about 70,000 U.S. adolescents and young adults, ages 15-39, are diagnosed annually. Leukemia, lymphoma, testicular cancer and thyroid cancer are among the most common cancer types in 15 to 24-year-olds, with breast cancer and melanoma comprising a growing share of cancers in 25 to 39-year olds.
“In general, I feel like cancer is such a touchy subject that people don’t talk about, but there’s so much we can learn about people’s experiences,” Liou said.
Stout said activism lies at the heart of Liou’s project. She praised the “strong activist agendas” of OSU’s undergraduate students and the important work done by students like Liou.
“Let’s keep in mind and recognize how important the undergraduate community can be in furthering our accomplishments in research of all kinds,” Stout said.
Liou is currently completing her application to the Office of Research’s Institutional Review Board, which will allow her to begin interviewing candidates after determining the ethics of her research project. She hopes to connect with cancer survivors through BuckeyeThon and Relay for Life, two organizations that help raise awareness and funds for cancer research.
“The biggest challenge will be recruiting and finding young adult cancer survivors in Columbus,” Liou said, hoping that through word-of-mouth, potential interviewees will find out about her project.
Liou said she encourages young adult cancer survivors to share their experiences as a learning opportunity for the OSU community.
“If you want to help your fellow peers have an insight into what your life was like and the challenges that you faced, then please consider sharing your story,” Liou said.