Transition of a Cancer Patient into a Cancer Survivor and Researcher!

by Cemre Ucaryilmaz

“When you have cancer and are treated with chemotherapy, it basically kills your body. But if you succeed at waking up the next morning and smile at yourself in the mirror, you have to fight. If you survived that night, you have to keep going and going”. It may seem like this quote belongs in a cancer survivor’s TED Talk, but no. This is the exact quote I repeated to myself in the hardest times during my cancer treatment. I faced the darkest sides of cancer at the age of 23. 3 years later, I am pursuing a master’s degree working in cancer therapy.

Cemre Ucaryilmaz
The day that I had my hair shaved, with my supportive boyfriend who also had it shaved

“I have cancer”

My name is Cemre Ucaryilmaz, and I was a senior molecular biology and genetics undergraduate student at Bogazici University, Turkey when I was diagnosed with bone cancer. On a rainy day, I slipped and fell, and had incredible pain. I was taken to the ER, and I was told that I have a huge mass of 8 centimeters on my neck and I should immediately have it examined. The biopsy results came in, and I was sitting alone on a bench in the hospital, thinking “Oh God, I have cancer”. After a bunch of scans, no metastasis was seen in my body, luckily. This was good news, we caught it before it had spread.

On the other hand, I am a biology student and I know how hard it is to eradicate cancer cells. If one resistant cell stays in my body, it means that the therapy has failed since the disease will continue even more aggressively. However, whilst I received chemotherapy, I always imagined the drugs circulating through my vessels, reaching the tumor, and performing their jobs perfectly. And they did – for a while. The doctors were really surprised and happy that there were not any visible tumors at the end of chemo. However, 3 months later, the pain came back and 2 small tumors were winking at us in the tomography results.

“Again, I had to suspend my dreams”

Cemre Ucaryilmaz
Now in the lab again as a cancer survivor master’s student!

In the meantime, I passed my exams and successfully graduated with Honours thanks to my high GPA, and was about to start my graduate studies. Again, I had to suspend my dreams and start another round of chemoradiotherapy. This time, the doctors tried another novel drug on me – and it worked! It worked perfectly compared to previous traditional chemotherapeutics. When the pain was gone and I felt healthy enough, I started my master’s education at Koc University, Turkey in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, receiving a full tuition waiver. Now, guess my research topic! I am working on the identification of new druggable targets and drugs for these targets for gastric cancer as a new therapy option. 

Through the experiences I gained in oncology clinics during my treatment, I had the opportunity to witness the pain that cancer patients endure throughout their treatment. While the field has come a long way, there is still much to be discovered. Considering my research background and genuine curiosity, I firmly believe that I have the potential to make valuable contributions to the field of biomedical research. I even made an e-poster presentation of my research from the first year of my master’s in the EACR 2020 Virtual Congress as a bursary winner! This was a huge milestone for me as a first-year master’s degree student presenting her research in a high-impact international congress, and introduced me to the various cancer researchers from different areas in addition to improving my vision. Afterwards, I am aiming to pursue a PhD in the US with my Fulbright Grant I was awarded for my success.

Cemre Ucaryilmaz
The “I did it” pose

“A cancer researcher who is also a cancer survivor”

I was diagnosed with cancer twice as a young scientist. However, in the meantime, I successfully graduated from college, had a gap year to fight against cancer, started my master’s degree, was awarded scholarships, and presented my research while I still continue to receive therapy. Lots of people believed in me on the way to beat these cells and supported my presence in cancer research. Their belief doubled mine, and right now, here I am, a cancer researcher who is also a cancer survivor, doing her best to prevent other people’s suffering. I will continue my efforts to survive and to conduct research to become an academic scientist, ultimately aiming to make valuable contributions to the field of cancer research.

Cemre UcaryilmazAbout the author:

I am a master’s student at Koc University, Turkey. I received my bachelor’s degree from Bogazici University, Turkey in 2019. I am working on identification of new druggable targets and drugs for these targets for gastric cancer as a new therapy option. Feel free to reach me!
Instagram: @cemreucaryilmaz
Twitter: @cemreucaryilmaz

About this article

This is one of our shortlisted entries for the second EACR Science Communication Prize. Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult and we’re delighted to be able to share our amazing shortlist.