Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016, but we are sharing it again this month in celebration and recognition of extraordinary mothers who inspire us to pursue our dreams.
Two-time Pancreatic Cancer Action Network research grant recipient, Florencia McAllister, MD, always knew she wanted to be a scientist. And her parents’ love and sacrifices helped make that possible.
“I grew up in a working class-neighborhood in Pergamino, a small countryside town in Argentina,” McAllister said. “My parents sent me to a private school in my town. I still remember how much they struggled financially to allow me to receive such a high-caliber education.”
While McAllister was in medical school, she realized that her parents had been stealthily selling various possessions in order to afford her education. When she noticed her mom’s wedding ring missing, McAllister vowed to get a job to help support her studies.
“My mom completely refused and insisted that I focus on school,” McAllister recalled. “But I was very lucky to get a position as a tutor, teaching pharmacology to medical and dental students. Soon, I had enough students that I was able to support myself and help my parents.”
Not long after, during her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh, McAllister was put in a position to help her parents again – when she learned that her mom was hospitalized with symptoms of jaundice.
“I flew home overnight and learned that she had cancer of the ampulla of Vater [a duct connecting the liver to the pancreas] that was extending into the pancreas,” McAllister said. “I took her to a major hospital in the city of Rosario for a Whipple surgery, and I carefully examined the pathology specimens of her tumor and every one of her lymph nodes.
“I had to see them with my own eyes.”
Despite seemingly successful surgery and chemotherapy, McAllister’s mother’s disease spread to her liver, and she passed away 16 months after her diagnosis at the age of 55.
This experience solidified McAllister’s career path as a scientist studying oncology, with a focus on gastrointestinal cancers – and especially pancreatic.
To support the subsequent steps of her research efforts, McAllister applied for and received two highly competitive grants from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – a Fellowship Award during her postdoctoral studies and a Career Development Award to help her set up an independent laboratory at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has played a fundamental role in my career,” McAllister said. “Both grants came at critical times when I was advancing my career in the midst of my grief. And, the stability of having secure research funding was particularly important as I was also growing my own family at that time.”
For Mother’s Day tomorrow, McAllister is looking forward to spending time outdoors with her two children, Milena and Taylan, aged 2 and 5, and her husband, Ismet. With a third child on the way, McAllister is especially reflective this Mother’s Day and appreciative of everything her mom taught her.
“My favorite quality of my mom was making me believe that anything I want could be possible,” said McAllister.
“My greatest wish is to instill in my children a strong motivation for pursuing their dreams, as my mom did for me.”
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