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Why my kids have made me a better cancer scientist

Did you know that the bull shark is considered to be one of the most aggressive species of shark? They are actually able to sense electrical impulses that radiate from their prey, allowing them to perform as better hunters.  Bull sharks tend to remain in the shallow areas of the water, where beach goers can […]

Did you know that the bull shark is considered to be one of the most aggressive species of shark? They are actually able to sense electrical impulses that radiate from their prey, allowing them to perform as better hunters.  Bull sharks tend to remain in the shallow areas of the water, where beach goers can find themselves in an unexpected altercation.

My nine-year-old daughter can sit and tell me all day about sharks. What she doesn’t know is that while she is teaching me about sharks, in all her excitement, I am learning so much more. Motherhood has brought with it lessons of empathy, patience, and motivation.

Prior to becoming a mother, I was a fairly typical, selfish teenage girl. When I had my first daughter, Audrey, I was overwhelmed with this realization that I had to care about somebody other than myself. As the days went by, I became more and more aware of the people around me. I could feel somebody else’s pain, understand another’s heartache, and I developed a fond interest in devoting my time to improve human welfare.  Empathy wasn’t necessarily a new feeling for me, but the way I wanted to act on my empathetic awareness was. It was as though becoming a mother allowed me to open my eyes to all I was capable of, and also granted me the patience to work towards becoming the best possible version of myself.

I firmly believe that patience is not something that the majority of our population finds natural. In fact, patience is something we work towards every day from the time we are young, until the day we grow old. A more profound meaning of patience came to me as a parent. I developed the endurance to get through the tougher days, the ability to feel humility as a humbling characteristic, and a new sense of persistence to overcome my obstacles. Of course, there were many obstacles that I faced in the years of teenage motherhood, but every one brought a new lesson to me. I gained experiences that other young adults do not typically have, and I found myself constantly being motivated by my children.

Motivation, a four-syllable word that drives me to become this better person I am constantly growing into. As a parent, I long for what is best for my kids. Albert Einstein once said: “setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” I work every day to set an example for my kids, in hopes that my message will be clear to them that there is no goal that is unattainable if you motivate yourself enough to accomplish it. This is the message I hope to send on to my girls as I continue to work towards my goals for my education, my career, and my life with them.

I first developed an interest in the field of medicine the summer after I graduated high school. Having become a young mother, it was necessary for me to work near full time in my undergraduate education. I worked for several years as a nursing assistant which, combined with my courses in biology, helped me realize that the medical sciences could be a good fit for me. I felt so strongly about improving the quality life of other people, and every time I saw my children become ill, need surgery, or have a moment of pain, I thought about the pain that the patients I worked with every day experienced. Originally I thought I would go to medical school, I applied once and like many other aspiring doctors in this country, I did not get accepted. I wondered what else I could do that would feel as satisfying for a career. What could I go into in which I am helping the ill and suffering, while still being able to be engaged in medical related research. I decided to pursue my PhD in the cancer sciences because I can still work to improve the field of cancer, even if I am not a direct caregiver.

Going to school for so long, I have had many nights of studying, days I am cramming for exams, presentation preparations, and occasionally this means I have to miss out on something fun with my kids. I would be lying to myself if I said I don’t worry about the time I miss with them. The truth is there are many times I wonder if I should put my education and career goals on the backburner to be with them. However, my girls are constantly reminding me that they are proud that I am doing this. My oldest had a ‘community helper’ assignment at school. They had to write about somebody in their community who is working to make it better. As I walked the classroom I saw so many drawings and descriptions of firefighters, police officers, and more. Then I saw my daughter’s. It was a drawing she made of me with a description that stated: ‘My community helper. Name: Ashley Stenzel. How they help: gives speeches to cancer survivors, helps people with cancer, does research on cancer, helps people with ovarian cancer’. These little things remind me that when they see me doing all of this, it tells them that they need to care for others, work towards improving humanity, and that they should always chase after their dreams.

The attributes I have gained as a mother, empathy, patience, and motivation, are things that I will bring into my future as a cancer scientist. They make me stronger, more enthusiastic, and give me a drive that I would not have found if it had not been for my children.  As I go into this journey I will have a profound amount of empathy for patients and their loved ones, the patience to work with individuals under high stress situations, and the motivation to keep working towards becoming the best version of me I can be. This is how my kids have made me a better cancer scientist.

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