As a child, Kirsten Bryant, PhD, used to follow her dad around everywhere. One of his favorite pastimes was working in the yard, and Bryant would be seen pushing a toy wheelbarrow alongside her dad as he tended to their gardens in Womelsdorf, Pa. She would even take naps in the flowerbeds to be near him while he was gardening.
As she grew, Bryant’s love for life sciences stayed with her – although she aspired to pursue a PhD in chemistry and chemical biology as opposed to botany. Bryant’s father was exceedingly proud of his daughter – the only girl among three brothers. “My dad was my biggest supporter,” Bryant said. “I was the first woman in our family to seek a career outside the home.”
During graduate school, Bryant was worried after receiving a phone call from her mom in April 2012, saying that Bryant’s dad had an urgent appointment with his primary care physician the next day. They would be receiving information about an abdominal “growth” detected on a CT scan.
“I spoke to my dad on the phone that evening – it was the most worried I’d ever heard him,” Bryant recently recalled. “Even though I was pursuing a PhD and not an MD, my dad perceived me as a ‘real’ doctor. And I could tell that he wanted me to be there for his appointment, so I drove home that night.
“I will never forget the doctor’s words to my dad the next morning: ‘You have metastatic pancreatic cancer.’”
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, her father’s mindset completely switched – he adopted a positive outlook and prepared himself to fight the disease in any way he could. Despite many grueling rounds of chemotherapy and brief participation in a clinical trial, Bryant’s dad unfortunately died of pancreatic cancer in March 2013 – only 11 months after his diagnosis.
At the time of her dad’s diagnosis, Bryant was in her fifth year of her graduate work – conducting studies focused on understanding basic cancer cell signaling. Even though she had joined a lab that traditionally studied immune receptors, Bryant had felt a strong desire to shift her focus to a cancer-related project.
“My PhD mentors were so supportive and cooperative about having a cancer project in the lab for the first time,” Bryant said. “But after my dad passed away, I could not stomach the idea of thinking about and studying cancer every day.
“I felt like I needed to take a break.”
The break ended up being very short-lived, as Bryant decided to pick up where her dad left off and devote her professional and personal efforts to battling pancreatic cancer.
In search of a lab in which to conduct her postdoctoral work, Bryant met with Channing Der, PhD, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After their meeting, she knew that she’d found her mentor for the next phase of her research training.
Excitingly, last year, Bryant was the recipient of a prestigious five-year Pathway to Leadership Grant from us, supporting the remainder of her training with Der and her transition to an independent faculty position.
Even before receiving her grant, Bryant became involved with our organization through her association with the Der lab – first as a PurpleStride participant and then attending Advocacy Day as well.
“It is such a relief and comfort to talk to others who have gone through similar experiences as me,” Bryant said about our signature events. “Before attending my first PurpleStride, I hadn’t even told my colleagues in the lab about my personal connection to the disease. Talking about my dad has been very cathartic.”
Advocacy Day this year will have particular poignancy for Bryant, as she’ll be leaving her husband home with their 11-month-old son on her husband’s first Father’s Day. However, the family was able to celebrate together last weekend – and just like the young Bryant loved to participate in all of her dad’s favorite pastimes, baby Jimmy was thrilled to join his parents on their fishing boat outing.
“It was wonderful to celebrate my husband Matt last weekend,” Bryant said. “Over the years, Father’s Day has been the toughest day for me. Attending Advocacy Day is the perfect positive distraction – I get to think about my dad all day but not focus on my sadness.
“Instead, Advocacy Day allows me to try to make a difference on his behalf.”
If you cannot attend Advocacy Day, please participate in the National Call-in on June 21 to amplify the voices of Bryant and all of our advocates on Capitol Hill, and tell Congress that it’s time to increase funding for cancer research to improve the lives of all pancreatic cancer patients.