From cancer researcher to stomach cancer survivor

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By Jenny Montgomery

When Sara Souto Strom was growing up in Argentina, she wanted to be a mathematician. But she became a marine biologist instead. Then a cancer researcher.

That's what can happen when nothing much daunts you, not even pursuing a Ph.D. or two.

Now an associate professor in Epidemiology, she's followed a career path that looks a lot like an expedition.

Call of the wild

Strom recalls having a scientific, inquiring mind even as a child in Buenos Aires. Whether exploring the patterns of numbers or nature, Strom was drawn to discovery. When her twin sister was getting interested in boys, Strom was getting serious about zoology.

It wasn't merely the dispassionate interest of a scientist.

"I still like any animal that moves," she says. "Jellyfish, lizards, horses. Human beings, too. They all need help."

Eventually Strom set her sights on marine biology, and she spent seven years earning bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Buenos Aires.

Her research as a marine biologist led her to the discovery of a new species of one-celled protozoa -- and to her future husband. She was studying plankton on a research vessel off the coast of Antarctica when she met Gary Strom. He was the American-born first mate.

By then she was ready to look up from her microscope, and she followed him to Houston to start a new life. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do next but knew she wanted to work more with people.

"I like to work with human beings," she says. "People energize me. I like to be in a crowd."

Following the clues

Strom eventually settled on a new career in epidemiology. She spent four years at the UT School of Public Health earning her second Ph.D., and for the last 25 years at MD Anderson, she's devoted herself to understanding who gets cancer and why.

Looking at large groups of people as an epidemiologist, she tries to figure out what the ones who get a certain disease have in common. The identification of these risk factors gives researchers looking for new treatments better ideas of where to focus their efforts. It also raises possibilities for prevention.

She's particularly interested in genetic and environmental risk factors and health disparities in minority populations.

She's studied prostate cancer and leukemias among minority groups, and she's a founding member of the Mexican-American Cohort, which collects data in Harris County for long-term health studies of this fast-growing, underserved population.

But Strom's not just asking who's susceptible to cancer; she wants to know who's surviving it.

For example, Strom's research suggests that a man's weight when he's diagnosed with prostate cancer plays a significant role in how aggressive his cancer becomes. Especially if he's gained most of that weight as a young adult. Knowing that, Strom believes that diet and exercise may reduce the risk of the cancer's progression.

Her interest in such insights isn't purely academic. It's personal.

Lessons in survival

In 2002, an acid taste in her mouth prompted Strom to see her doctor and undergo an endoscopy that revealed early-stage stomach cancer. She credits her survival to MD Anderson's specialists and the support of her family through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But she also believes diet and exercise played a role.

Even now Strom works out regularly -- "that's a gift from me to me" -- and jokes she might come back as a body builder in her next life.

"I put all my energy into getting better," she says. "I was one of the lucky ones who made it, and I went on with my life."

The experience has affected Strom's approach to work. She's mindful that each person is an individual, not a statistic, and she makes it a priority to support colleagues facing cancer themselves.

She's put some thought into personal priorities as well. The ocean still makes her list.

"My pleasure in life is to go to Galveston and walk on the beach," she says. "You have to choose what's important to you and put your energy there."

A longer version of this blog post originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly publication for employees.

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