Research Roundup: Research “Wunderkind” Finds Meaning in Cancer Diagnosis

Dec. 21, 2023

Lauren Ghazal, PhD, FNP-BC, grew up in a Middle Eastern family that defied cultural expectations: Her father stayed home with the children — a “Mr. Mom of the 1990s,” she jokes — and her mother, a nurse, was the primary breadwinner.

In college, she studied economics, went to nursing school and became an advanced practitioner and researcher of the global nurse workforce, and then enrolled in a Ph.D. program.

Cancer unexpectedly knocked her off the ambitious course — but it also helped Ghazal figure out the “why” in her career. 

Lauren Ghazal PhD - headshot- low res - 2023
Lauren Ghazal, PhD, FNP-BC

“While in my Ph.D. program, I was working per diem as a nurse practitioner at an urgent care in New York City. I had a student shadowing me to learn about the lymph-node system and I was showing her how to do an exam,” Ghazal recalls. “I distinctly remember tracking my hand up to my collarbone and feeling a little lump. It was like everything you’re taught in NP school about health assessments: It was non-tender, one-sided, fixed — all things that are concerning.” 

Ghazal was just 26, studying at New York University. She didn’t panic, but she did visit the NYU student health center right away. 

Physicians can be dismissive of cancer symptoms in otherwise healthy young adults, Ghazal says, and patients end up getting diagnosed in later stages of the disease. Thankfully, that didn’t happen here, and she was told she had highly treatable, early stage Hodgkin lymphoma. 

It was still shocking.

“I was in a Whole Foods store,” she says. “I got the call while shopping and it was so guttural. I remember carrying my grocery basket out of the store and into Central Park, and then just dropping everything on the ground… I just needed to call my Mom."

She feels fortunate to have been treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) in Manhattan. Notably — that was the beginning of a connection to Wilmot Cancer Institute, where Jonathan Friedberg, MD, MMSc, is the director and a worldwide lymphoma expert.

“I had an incredible oncologist at MSK who actually used a lot of Dr. Friedberg’s research in my treatment plan,” Ghazal says.

Applying a Patient’s Viewpoint to Research 

While undergoing cancer therapy, Ghazal couldn’t work clinically because her immune system was compromised. She lost income. She lost the feeling of invincibility. Her friends were moving on.

She began asking herself: What do I want to make of something this big?

During late-night Google searches, she stumbled into the psychosocial impact of cancer on young-adult survivors. She read about financial stress coupled with health stress, and given her background in economics — “a bulb went off,” she says.

Scientific literature was just emerging on cancer-related financial challenges for young adults. Questions that intrigued her: How does cancer affect a survivor’s work trajectory, before and after diagnosis, and work-related goals. What’s important to a young adult cancer survivor as it relates to work? 

With the help of a supportive doctoral advisor and program director, and driven by a self-described type-A personality, Ghazal powered through cancer treatments and completed the PhD program in just four years. 

For her dissertation, she interviewed 40 young adult cancer survivors and felt a kinship. Many of them told her they had been working in busy jobs before cancer, but wanted something with more meaning now, “something that gives back.” 

Fast forward a few years, and Rochester snuck up on Ghazal again. While attending an oncology nursing event in Washington, D.C., she struck up a conversation with Meghan Underhill-Blazey, PhD, a University of Rochester School of Nursing junior faculty member, and came away impressed by the possibilities upstate.

In a joint venture, Wilmot and the School of Nursing subsequently recruited Ghazal, and she moved to Rochester this summer. She is an associate member of Wilmot’s Cancer Prevention and Control (CPC) research program, and an assistant professor at the nursing school.  

“Rochester is like this hidden gem that is being discovered more and more and really growing in nursing research and in the young-adult cancer space,” Ghazal says. “It’s such an awesome place to be right now.” 

Her research has taken a slight turn to focus on young individuals from underrepresented backgrounds who have cancer, particularly people in sexual and gender minority groups, which includes people who are gay, bisexual, and transgender. She is a co-principal investigator on a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research  Institute (PCORI) engagement award for a project to build a research base to support this group. 

“As researchers and providers, we aren’t doing a great job of engaging with underrepresented communities,” she says. 

At Wilmot, Ghazal will work with AnnaLynn Williams, PhD, assistant professor of Surgery and a fellow young-adult cancer survivor, who studies accelerated aging among young people who had cancer;  and Charles Kamen, PhD, MPH, associate professor of Surgery, who focuses on factors that lead to health disparities in the sexual and gender minority population. Both are also members of the CPC research program at Wilmot. 

Recently, Ghazal received a new accolade — one that seems particularly fitting given the obstacles she’s overcome. 

She was chosen as a STAT Wunderkind, a “next-generation scientific superstar,” in a national contest that singles out young, high achievers from top research institutions. STAT is a respected news agency that exclusively covers health and medicine. 

“I’m honored and proud to be recognized for my work and dedication to advancing adolescent and young-adult cancer care delivery — especially at a time when I am launching a new career in a new place,” Ghazal says. “I feel blessed to contribute to nursing science as a patient, provider, and researcher, and hope to continue this important work in a long career.”