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The Carolina Cancer Association (CCA) is a group focused on providing undergraduate students with the chance to gain insight into cancer research and patient care. Students can attend oncology research symposiums, shadow oncology researchers, volunteer, and receive free resources for graduate school and medical school admissions through a partnership with The Princeton Review, BeMo Academic Consulting, and the CCA Library. They are also partnered with Kaplan Test Prep for career development resources.

CCA’s mission is to “contribute to the healthcare and cancer-oriented communities by promoting meaningful involvement in academia and volunteerism, spreading awareness about cancer and its extensive direct and indirect effects, and fundraising for national nonprofits to make a sustainable impact in our community.”

I recently interviewed one of the co-presidents of the Carolina Cancer Association, Amber Mercedes Amparo.  Please see the interview below.

Please tell us about The Carolina Cancer Association.

CCA is one of the fastest-growing student organizations at UNC-CH with a dedicated mission to positively impact the cancer community and prepare our members to be the next leaders in the fight against cancer. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to raise thousands of dollars for the UNC Health Foundation, SECU Family House, Carolina Cancer Screening Initiative, and Spread Love Foundation. Moreover, we provide opportunities for pre-professional development in medicine and the health sciences through exposure to our guest speakers in research, industry, and academia, research opportunities in UNC Lineberger Cancer Center, and exclusive access to benefits from our partnerships with Princeton Review, Kaplan Test Prep, and BeMo academic consulting.

What does leading CCA entail?

Leading CCA allows me to be in an environment of like-minded and passionate individuals dedicated to making a change. All officers are leaders in their own scope of responsibilities, taking on their individual projects and spearheading opportunities to provide for our members. It is a privilege to be a part of this team, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it!

I thoroughly enjoyed leading the team as President in the 2021-2022 academic year, and I cannot wait for what is to come as Co-President this upcoming year. In terms of my responsibilities as Co-President, along with our other Co-President, Ali Fahim, our responsibilities are more administratively focused on being aware of all contacts made with potential partners, guest speakers, etc. We serve as the primary contact with UNC Lineberger Cancer Center, and we lead the development of large-scale projects, such as our current work with the CRSP, the CCA Research Shadowing Program.

What are the qualifications to participate in this program?

None! We only ask that students are prepared to be engaged in making a change. We have had members of all disciplines in CCA, motivated by the tangible impact that CCA has made on the community. Although our pre-professional opportunities are more focused on the health sciences and medicine, our community outreach and volunteerism have attracted members from non-STEM majors!

What types of volunteer opportunities are available?

Before the pandemic, members actively volunteered in the Pediatric Playroom through the UNC Children’s Hospital Play Atrium, interacting with patients and patient families to provide fun activities and games. We hope to start this opportunity as soon as group volunteering is permitted again in the hospital. We also send members to volunteer at SECU Family House and Ronald McDonald House to cook dinners for patient families while their loved ones are receiving treatment. Additionally, we have had members do volunteer internships for national nonprofits like the American Cancer Society in community development and advocacy. Apart from these main volunteer opportunities, we have volunteer experiences with smaller events through the Kidzu Children’s Museum, UNC Blood Donation Center, and collaborating with UNC Student Organizations!

Why is this program important, and how does it impact the lives of students?

There is no other student organization like CCA with such a unique focus on the cancer community. Not only have we been able to quantify our extensive impact on the community with our fundraising totals, but we have shown that members have grown professionally through access to our career development opportunities and resources. Princeton Review offers an annual scholarship for one member that has shown commitment to the mission of CCA to pay for their MCAT prep course worth over $2000, and we have been able to offer 2 scholarships to inspiring members. Moreover, we just sent 5 members at the end of last semester to become health coaches for cancer patients through the HealthScore program in the Office of Clinical and Translational Research. These opportunities to be exposed to the health sciences and medicine, as well as prepare for applications to graduate and medical schools, are instrumental in the undergraduate careers of our members.

How does this program serve the community?

As aforementioned in our volunteer opportunities, these experiences give back to the community. We can positively impact the lives of cancer patients and their families through our interactions at SECU Family House and Ronald McDonald House. In the expansion of SECU Family House’s institution, we had an instrumental role in preparing their new wing through the volunteerism of our members. In the UNC Hospital System, we can put smiles on the faces of patients and their family members in the Pediatric Playroom while receiving treatment. We are proud of our passionate members for taking the lead in supporting our patient community.

How does CCA spread cancer awareness?

From having information tables in the Pit to participating in the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s PurpleStride event, CCA is committed to spreading awareness and advocating for cancer patients. Our Carolina Cancer Screening Initiative fundraiser was dedicated to raising awareness of the disparities in colon cancer screening and raising funds to support the growth of the screening initiative. We also have a program called the Ribbon Initiative, where we release articles of clothing specific to different types of cancer throughout the year, so individuals who purchase this clothing can wear and bring awareness to these types of cancer. All proceeds from this initiative will be donated to meaningful causes.

In what capacity will you collaborate with the UNC Cancer Network in the future? 

We are very fortunate for CCA to be connected with the UNC Cancer Network, and we plan to do all in our power to foster this connection for the growth of the Cancer Network and the benefit of our members. On the horizon, we are curating a series of recorded lectures under the umbrella of a central “theme” that will be viewed by our members for active member requirements for the upcoming semester. We hope that this will help in the growth of knowledge and awareness of our members!

Please tell us about your fundraising for national nonprofits.

Even during the challenges of the pandemic, in the 2020-2021 academic year, we raised and donated over $11,000 to the following causes: State Employees Credit Union Family House for meals for patients and their families, UNC Lineberger Health Foundation for transportation of patients to receive the treatment they need, the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program, Spread Love Foundation, and the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. In the Fall 2021 semester, we set the goal to fundraise at least $3,000 for charitable causes throughout the academic year. We shattered that goal with our first fundraiser of the semester, with over $3,000 donated to the Carolina Cancer Screening Initiative. In just under 3 years of operation, the student members have raised nearly $20,000 to go towards meaningful initiatives.

What are your future goals, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

We are always seeking new opportunities in research, volunteerism, and professional development to offer our members. However, our primary goal is to expand each opportunity to as many members as possible. We have supported hundreds of students over the years and want to ensure that every member can partake in our CCA-sponsored events and volunteer opportunities. The pandemic severely limited the number of in-person experiences we could give each member due to COVID-19 precautions. We hope that when restrictions are safely lifted, we can send more members for these experiences. Our plan to accomplish this goal is to stay updated with the announcements relating to these opportunities, expand our network, and connect with other programs to increase the number of our volunteer experiences.

If you had no deadlines, what project or task would you focus on right now?

Although we are under internal deadlines, I am most excited about our research program CRSP, and I would work on it 24/7 if I had the bandwidth! We had established a research shadowing program in the first semesters following the founding of CCA (formerly known as Cancer Med Society). Still, our goal with CRSP is to increase members’ exposure to multiple fields of research in a single semester. The idea is that members rotate between graduate student mentors in various research areas, similar to how a first-year graduate student would do rotations in other labs. We hope that some connections with graduate student mentors may foster a permanent research position, as has happened in the past. Most importantly, this program is designed for students without prior research experience. It is for them to get their foot in the door of the scientific community and show them just how diverse and exciting research can be!

Is there anything else you would like us to know about CCA?

Because the original leaders of CCA saw how much a national collegiate effort was needed in the fight against cancer, we decided to establish a 501c3 nonprofit known as the Collegiate Cancer Organization. I am one of the founders and Vice President of this national nonprofit. We have used CCA as a blueprint for establishing other collegiate chapters, with the Wolfpack Cancer Association (WCA) as our NCSU chapter!

Thank you, Amber, for your time and for providing additional information on this meaningful and rapidly-growing student organization.