Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853, email@example.com
Graduation stories: Rare cancer won’t stop Jessica Roark from earning two degrees
LAWRENCE – Time creeps by at a petty pace for some graduates – waiting to hear about a job application or graduate school.
Not so for Jessica Roark, who was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer during her sophomore year at the University of Kansas. On Sunday, May 16, Roark will complete a second degree at KU. She plans to enter graduate school in ecological sciences and engineering at Purdue University next fall.
Time moves at warp speed for the young scientist from Meriden. In 2006, Roark was whisked into the nonsensical, unforgiving world of cancer and has been freefalling ever since.
The swelling around her right eye didn’t make sense.
The diagnosis of adenoid cystic carcinoma didn’t make sense.
The onslaught of medical terms didn’t make sense.
The incredible treatment options didn’t make sense.
What made sense was taking action.
Roark, who had been living independently since graduating from Jefferson West High School, has used her wits to find options to halt a rare and aggressive cancer and move on. Her dream is to be a scientist who gathers information to help maintain a safe and clean environment to protect human health.
In spring 2007, surgeons removed a tumor and her right eye.
Since then, Roark has constantly juggled course work with chemotherapy and radiation treatments and checkups.
Adenoid cystic carcinoma typically occurs in salivary glands but can occur anywhere in the body and has a high propensity for recurrence. Little research is focused on this cancer. Science has not found any strong genetic or environmental risk factors for adenoid cystic carcinoma.
In fall 2007, Roark returned to campus, adjusting to single-eye vision and forging ahead to maintain her scholarships and graduate with degrees in environmental studies and civil engineering. She also worked part-time in KU’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety. In summer 2008, she completed an internship with a Kansas City-area engineering consulting firm and then traveled to China for a semester abroad.
Last spring, Roark finished a degree in environmental studies while undergoing a second round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She set aside her plans to work with the restoration of Potter Lake on campus. Instead, she focused on completing as much course work as possible by computer while at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She spent the summer working on a river restoration project as a recipient of $3,500 stipend from the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.
This fall, Roark returned to campus to finish a second degree in civil engineering. In December, through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, she attended the American Geophysical Union annual conference in San Francisco.
As the spring 2010 semester began in January, she was making plans to undergo a radical surgery for a new tumor along the right side of her jaw. The surgery was Feb. 11 in Houston.
“I spent Valentine’s Day in the hospital,” she said.
To remove the tumor, nerve endings in her facial muscles were snipped, reducing her full smile to half. Muscle tissue from a leg was transplanted to her face to restore the nerve endings with therapy.
In April, she elected to undergo yet another round of radiation treatments, this time at the University of Iowa.
When surgery prevented her from participating in a group project in a waste water treatment class her civil engineering degree this semester, Roark worked with Edward Peltier, assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering, to write a research paper.
She chose to look at the research on the use of nanomaterials to disinfect or filter water. Roark plans to make nanomaterials the focus of her graduate research.
She has applied for an NSF fellowship, and her career plans keep her going but the freefall is rougher.
“Mentally it’s been more difficult,” she says comparing this third recurrence to the first and second rounds of surgeries and treatments she has endured in the past three years.
“I think about the prognosis, about death. I’m always thinking about my future. Everyday is a struggle.”
On the worst days, she gets out of bed and keeps appointments for treatment.
“I might not be too productive, but I at least shower and eat, no matter how much I want to stay in bed.”
On better days, Roark gets through each day “thinking I have a purpose.”
She is the daughter of John and Lori Roark of Meriden and Charlena Eckert of North Kansas City, Mo.
To learn more about the Adenoid Cycstic Carcinoma Research Foundation, visit www.accrf.org.