Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your research pre-COVID-19?
I’m a PhD candidate (Australian Government RTP scholarship) and research associate at the Westmead Applied Research Centre. Before COVID19, I loved to travel, eat delicious food, and spend time with family and friends. My research focused on working with breast cancer survivors to find new ways to provide health support, like sending motivating text messages. When COVID19 restrictions stopped in-person recruitment, I still needed to finish enrollments and follow-up visits for my clinical trial. The trial was testing the EMPOWER-SMS text message program that aims to improve health and wellness for breast cancer survivors by sending supportive and science-based text messages for 6-months.
In five words or less, what was your reaction when you heard of the restrictions put in place?
People will need support
Recovering from breast cancer is hard enough. Then, a global pandemic canceled all in-person support.
How did you overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19?
Luckily, we had ethics approval to do phone calls with patients, which turned out to be more convenient for them and us. My team and I also quickly gained ethics approval to test a nation-wide version of the EMPOWER-SMS study called “Wellness after breast cancer during COVID19”. This text message program provides support and trustworthy information and weblinks about mental health, exercise, diet and COVID19 regulations. Registration is online and takes less than 2-minutes, making it convenient and accessible. Promoting the program took endless hours of emailing and calling breast cancer organisations and learning new skills, like Facebook advertising.
Did you find many positive outcomes?
COVID19 shone a light on the need for accessible healthcare, like telehealth and new digital health solutions, like my text message programs. Things that never seemed possible are now happening and improving healthcare access for everyone, including people in rural areas or with limited mobility. From a personal perspective, working from home has been an extremely positive experience because it eliminates 2-3 hours on the train per day. I now have more time for my own mental and physical health! I also made some incredible connections and friendships within the breast cancer community and learned social media marketing skills that I can carry with me throughout my career.
What surprised you about your research during the pandemic?
I was amazed at how quickly we could test our text message program nationwide, how many people signed up (>400 and counting!) and the incredible feedback we’ve been receiving. I know we’re having a genuine positive impact on people’s lives. It’s been a powerful and emotional experience. I credit this rapid research translation to my supervisor Prof Julie Redfern’s vision and drive to fund accessible support for people with breast cancer (and lung disease, heart disease, diabetes and more) during the COVID19 pandemic and beyond. Without her quick thinking to apply for ethics and ongoing support, this project wouldn’t have been possible.
Fast forward 100 years and someone opened your hypothetical diary from the pandemic, what would it say about being a student during this time?
I am so lucky to have a supportive, collaborative team. Not only did we create a new digital health program that’s supporting >400 breast cancer survivors, we’ve made sure to keep spirits up by getting together for Zoom coffees (Zoffees!) and lunches.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
The COVID19 pandemic has been terrible for most people. I acknowledge that I am very fortunate have a job and a supportive team. My main struggle has been living across the world from my family (Halifax, Canada) and not knowing when I’ll be allowed to see them in-person. Video calls are great, but real hugs are better. If anyone is having a hard time, reaching out to someone you trust or free online services like https://www.beyondblue.org.au/ can make a world of difference. Stay safe everyone!
Connect with Anna:
If you or someone you know would like to sign up for our “Wellness after breast cancer during COVID19” text message study – click here. You are eligible to take part if you live in Australia, finished active breast cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy – can still be on targeted therapy or endocrine therapy tablets) and own a mobile phone.
A very big thank you to Anna for taking the time to tell her story of being a PhD student during COVID-19.