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Research Stories: Michelle Arad Mollica, PhD, RN, OCN

Research Stories: Michelle Arda Mollica, PhD, RN, OCN

Mollica, clinical assistant professor of nursing, focuses on cancer survivors in her research.

Buffalo, New York – March 11, 2015 – As a clinical assistant professor and online program coordinator in D’Youville College’s School of Nursing, Michelle Mollica considers it her job to push her RN students to expand their options in the nursing profession. If they aren’t sure what to do, they can just follow her example. “We don’t want to be testing them on their associate degrees. We are trying to add to their skills,” Dr. Mollica said. “It’s a huge part of our job to make sure the students know all the opportunities out there.”

That includes leaving the hospital, the ER or the ICU to do medical research. For most hands-on medical personnel, research is not anywhere on their radar. It was the same way for Dr. Mollica, who earned certification as an oncology nurse and in pediatric oncology after getting her RN and before getting her masters in nursing education and her PhD. in nursing science.

“I never thought that research was for me. It was boring, it was too ‘out there,’ ” she said. “Then the research bug bites you. All of a sudden you can’t get enough of asking questions and finding answers.” Her pursuit of answers will take her away from D’Youville in the coming year as she embarks on a new phase of her career as a post-doctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

She wishes she could say it is all going according to plan, but she admits planning has had little to do with it. Her career path instead has been serendipitous. “Oncology just happened for me. My first job was on an oncology floor. I never thought I would do that, you know, ‘That’s so depressing,’ is what people think, but I found the opposite to be true. The patients were so uplifting.”

When her family moved back to Buffalo, she naturally headed to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where she worked as a nurse and coordinated the student nurse intern program. Her patients then guided her into what would become her research specialty: cancer survivors.

“Having cancer is scary for people. It overwhelms them. That’s one of the reasons I chose to study survivorship,” she said. “Patients would finish their treatment, they would be declared cancer free and then they were told ‘You’re done.’ The problem, she said, is they didn’t feel done. “They would wonder, What do I do now? I don’t feel ‘back to normal.’ ”

The medical part of the treatment addressed the changes in their bodies without acknowledging the changes they had gone through emotionally. The situation intrigued Dr. Mollica on a professional and human level.

In trying to understand these changes and the needs that patients have because of them, she decided to focus on African American breast cancer survivors, a unique group because black women generally undergo less screening, resulting in later diagnoses and higher mortality rates from the illness.

With a few more years and advanced degrees behind her, she recalls that her choice surprised people. “They would say you’re a young, white girl. What are you doing this for?”

She had her answer.

“There is such a strong sisterhood of women who have been through this, and they carry it like a badge. They want to help others, to pay it forward,” she explained. “It helps answer the ‘What do I do now?’ question.”

Her inspiration became her avocation and developed into a series of research papers, including spiritual aspects of survivorship, quality of life for the African American survivors, how the women transition from patient to being cancer-free and the quality of patient outcomes when they are aided by a peer navigator.

As she prepares to leave for her fellowship, she knows she is going to miss working with students, and she hopes to eventually find her way back to the classroom. While she is with them, she will continue to share her excitement about the expanding role of nurses in medicine, particularly oncology.

“We’re viewing a lot of cancers as being more like a chronic disease that people will live with for years,” she said. “They will need more care, and there are 14 million cancer survivors and growing in the United States, so we need to address survivorship.”

All this adds up to more patient-centered, quality of life issues.

“One reason I gravitated toward breast cancer survivors is that there is a big population of women who have survived,” Dr. Mollica said. “If we can get it right here, then we can apply what we know to other cancers and tailor it for those patients.”

“No one does this better than nurses. A physician gets maybe 15 minutes with a patient in a day; we get them the other 23 hours and 45 minutes,” she said. “Nurses know the patients; they are there to answer their questions. Our input counts.”

Story by Melinda Miller
Photo by Bob Kirkham