5 questions with…communications researcher, Relay For Life honorary chair Mary Step

Mary StepWhen people hear the term “cancer research,” they might think cures, genes or even prevention. Mary Step’s studies take a different route.

As an assistant professor of family medicine and community health, she studies the communication between cancer patients and their physicians. And as the honorary chair of this year’s Relay For Life at Case Western Reserve, Step will show participants the critical value of cancer research, in all its forms.

Step has spent her entire career in communication studies, researching everything from communication in romantic relationships to the interaction between interpersonal and mass communications. After teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences for nearly 10 years, Step earned an opportunity to apply for a postdoctoral position within the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The switch from social science to medical research created a steep learning curve for Step, as the methods and the deadline-driven nature of her new field was drastically different.

But with the support of mentors and School of Medicine leaders, she learned the ropes, and by 2010 she’d earned a five-year grant from the American Cancer Society to study the communication needs of women who experience a recurrence of cancer. The goal? To develop a way for these individuals to connect with their oncologists, to express their preferences and to, overall, communicate effectively with their physicians and loved ones.

“These people are really in a different circumstance. They are cancer survivors, and then they’re not,” Step said. “It’s really a stunner, and they have to learn to re-acclimate to everything, including how they tell people about it and how they feel about it.”

Specifically, Step discusses with the female patients the uncertainty of their illness, as well as their hope, quality of life and well-being. This focus on the individual—as a patient or survivor—is one of the reasons Step appreciates her work with American Cancer Society and why she wants to give back through opportunities such as Relay For Life.

As honorary chair of this year’s Relay For Life event, taking place April 20-21, Step intends to walk the track and talk to attendees about the importance of cancer research such as hers, or the Cancer Prevention Study-3, a longitudinal epidemiological study of individuals ages 30 to 65 who do not have cancer. But most of all, she’s excited to connect with the students and other participants who will take part in the two-day event.

“It’s one of those rarified events where people are just charged up,” she said. “It’s astounding when you think about the pain that can go on in the world, but the incredible hope that can come out of an event like this and the capacity people have to support one another is wonderful.”

1. What was the first album you ever purchased, and what was the medium (record, cassette, CD, etc.)?
Oh, it was vinyl: David Bowie, Young Americans. At least that was the first album I bought as a teenager. I think my dad got me Meet the Monkees when I was in second grade.

2. What do you think should have won “Best Picture” at the Oscars—whether or not it was nominated?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
. I enjoyed the heck out of that movie. I was always a big Planet of the Apes fan and liked the connections to the old films. I like old movies more than new ones; my favorite is Rhubarb, a 1951 screwball comedy about a yellow tabby cat that inherits a fortune and is pursued by loser gangsters. Hilarious.

3. What moment at Case Western Reserve stands out as most memorable (so far)?
It was probably when I first met with [Laura Siminoff,] my first mentor in the Department of Bioethics. My dog had passed away the weekend before I met her, and I was really devastated. I knocked on her door and she said, “Oh, come on in,” and I looked at her and just said, “My dog died.” It was one of the weirdest interview-type situations I’d ever been in, but she was just so kind.

I’d have to say in the medical school, that’s been replicated again and again. There’s been a great kindness among people I’ve met in the medical school.

4. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
Probably that I spent time in an ashram when I was doing my PhD work. It was an ashram right here in Ohio, too—in Kent. I used to stay there when I was writing my dissertation and did a lot of meditation and yoga. I can’t say I’m a practicing yogi right now, but it’s a huge part of who I am.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The willingness of higher ups to invest in people. Through my mentors, my department chair and others, there is such a willingness to nurture intellectual pursuits and young scholars. That’s what I’m always grateful for, and it’s something I’m always trying to return.