School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies


When Knowledge Fights Fear

Grad students and post-docs raise awareness about cancer within the Kingston community

by Natalia Mukhina

Paralyzing fear. This was the only emotion I experienced 5 years ago after hearing from my doctor that I had cancer. For me, it was a “Thing-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”  Now, in the lead-up to World Cancer Day 2017, Queen’s PhD candidates, Mathieu Crupi and Piriya Yoganathan, who are involved in cancer research and community outreach, tell me about the importance of overcoming the fear of cancer and what grad students can do to reduce the impact cancer has on individuals, communities and families. As a cancer survivor and patient advocate, I believe in their ability to make a difference in the fight against cancer.

Piriya Yoganathan Mathieu Crupi
Piriya Yoganathan and Mathieu Crupi 

Mathieu and Piriya lead the Research Information Outreach Team (RIOT), a group of Queen’s undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students who work in cancer research and volunteer in raising awareness in the Kingston community about the progress and promise of cancer research. RIOT is affiliated with the Canadian Cancer Society, the largest national health charity, whose mission is to eradicate cancer and enhance the quality of life of those living with cancer.

“The Kingston chapter of RIOT started in 2014 and officially became a Queen’s club in the fall of 2016,” says Piriya. To date, RIOT has arranged many community outreach activities to highlight the latest advances in cancer research, and to raise the profile of cancer research at Queen’s.

“RIOT has organized a range of different outreach sessions, such as interactive workshops, hands-on activities and presentations,” Mathieu adds. “We also post online blogs, write for the local media and produce educational videos. In short, we use every opportunity to involve the local community in RIOT’s programs.”

Why does RIOT believe in the importance of educating people on cancer-related topics? “The vision of the Canadian Cancer Society is to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer,” explains Mathieu. “It is difficult for us to think about cancer, when it’s a disease that will intersect with all of our lives. To help get over the fear, it is important to look at cancer from another side. If you understand cancer at the molecular level and how it works - that aspect is not scary, it’s fascinating. I encourage people to keep asking more questions about cancer and figure out what is going on in the field, how scientists target cancer cells, treat disease symptoms, what new biomarkers appear, etc.”

Many of RIOT’s events are designed to educate children. “We have worked together with the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston & Area, and also with the local chapter of the Girl Guides of Canada,” Mathieu says. “During our educational sessions, we teach children and teens about basic cancer cell biology, the risk factors associated with cancer and how they can protect themselves. For example, we’ve had a session about skin cancer and why it is important to wear sunscreen and the ABCDE rule to evaluate moles. In 2017, we will be likely visiting more high schools to talk about what we are doing here at Queen’s.”

Piriya and Mathieu are both proud of RIOT’s annual “Let’s Talk Cancer” initiative that started at Queen’s two years ago. This is an educational symposium where high school students have a chance to visit the campus and anatomy museum for a day and learn about cancer research. In the spring of 2016, RIOT attracted about 250 students from local schools to take part in the “Let’s Talk Cancer” event. “We will continue expanding our youth outreach programs with different organizations. It is incredibly rewarding to interact with them,” Piriya says.

While medicine has made impressive progress in detecting and treating cancer in recent years, the battle with such an enigmatic disease as cancer has not been won yet. “Cancer is a very complex disease, with many unanswered questions,” Piriya says. “One of our main messages that we would like to promote is that cancer is not one disease. It is a collection of diseases. More research is required to better address all those forms. The more we understand cancer, the better we can prevent, detect or treat it.”

In such circumstances, cancer research is the master-key to success in outperforming the disease. The inaugural Daffodil Gala, the charity event the RIOT is organizing in partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society, aims to support the Queen’s Transdisciplinary Training Program in Cancer Research. “All of us in Kingston RIOT hope that the Gala helps us raise funds for this unique program,” Mathieu says, and Piriya agrees, adding that the program gives a unique chance to those students who strive to succeed in cancer research.