February 7, 2018 | by Jennifer Mattson
From a young age, Jessica Clague DeHart, Ph.D., M.P.H., knew she would be working in cancer research.
“My mom was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20s and had a hysterectomy [making it impossible for her to become pregnant],” Clague DeHart said. Adeline Cardenas-Clague and her husband instead decided to adopt.
Clague DeHart joined her new family when she was just 22 hours old.
The fact that cancer is the reason for me being with my parents is at the root of everything I do,” she said.
An assistant professor in the Division of Biomarkers of Early Detection and Prevention in the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope, Clague DeHart is focused on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, specifically among women who, like her mother, are Hispanic.
For Clague Dehart, cancer prevention is a personal and professional mission. Her parents never shied away from talking about her mom’s cancer diagnosis or that the fact that Clague DeHart was adopted.
“My parents met in London, studying theater, so the performing arts were important in our family,” Clague DeHart explained. “Even though I had a strong tendency toward science, I wanted to be a ballerina. The joke was that when it came to math and science, it was clearly in my genes.”
But an accident during a performance in her junior year of high school would change everything.
“I was planning on going to college at the Tisch School of the Arts to become a dancer,” she recalled. “I wanted to do something for Mom, so I was dancing to raise money for cancer research. I was supposed to do a double turn when I hurt myself.”
In the audience was an orthopedic surgeon, who came to help.
“You might want to think of doing something else,” he said, looking at the injury. “You most likely won't be able to dance professionally.”
At the same time, another personal tragedy would strike. Her beloved grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“After that, I couldn't go to dance class, so I was spending time with my grandfather who was getting chemo at the University of Southern California.” She remembers taking him to every one of his chemotherapy appointments.
“I would always ask the doctors and nurses questions,” she said. “They got to know me and I realized, 'I really like this medicine thing.'” Already enrolled at USC, she decided to become a public health major.
Meanwhile, her grandfather's health continued to deteriorate.
“My mom's side of the family is Mexican and I remember right before he died, my grandfather said to me in Spanish, 'Mijita, beat this thing,'” Clague DeHart recalled. “In my head, I was thinking I had to beat this. I had to figure out a way of not failing because I had made promises.”
By then, being pre-med wasn't enough. Clague DeHart didn't just want to treat patients, she “wanted to discover things.” The question then became, “What can I do?”
From there, she learned of a new health program for disease prevention: “I took the first class and thought it was exactly what I wanted to do: prevention.”
At City of Hope, Clague DeHart’s research focuses on examining the biological mechanisms underlying associations between modifiable risk factors and cancer prevention and survival.
She sees herself “as part of a puzzle, helping patients live long enough to get the newest treatment,” whether that means helping patients tolerate side effects or teaching them about what to eat and how to exercise postsurgery.
One of those patients at City of Hope is her mother, Adeline Cardenas-Clague, who is currently being treated for triple-negative breast cancer.
“Being a cancer researcher I knew the disease was hard, but it was never personal,” she said. “Of course, I am not the one going through it, but [my mom’s cancer] has really had a huge impact on me.”
Clague DeHart says it takes incredible determination to be successful as a cancer researcher. But she says she is up to the task. She can't fail her mom, her grandfather or any of the cancer patients she’s worked with.