'It Was Personal.' After Tragedy, Physicist Devotes Career To Cancer Research | KGOU
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'It Was Personal.' After Tragedy, Physicist Devotes Career To Cancer Research

Jul 10, 2020
Originally published on July 10, 2020 8:07 am

By the age of 4, Hadiyah-Nicole Green had lost both her mother and her grandparents.

She was sent to live with her Aunt Ora Lee Smith and Uncle General Lee Smith in St Louis, Mo. But in her early 20s, both her aunt and uncle were diagnosed with cancer.

Green, who now works as an assistant professor in the surgery department at Morehouse College's medical school, started the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in honor of her late aunt.

In an interview with StoryCorps in 2017, Green, 39, spoke with her cousin and Lee Smith's granddaughter, Tenika Floyd, 37, about how her late aunt and uncle inspired her to pursue a career in cancer research.

"My best memories were big family gatherings where we would sit for hours and pick greens — collard greens, and turnip greens, mustard greens," Green said. "We would cook all day."

Her aunt, she said, had a "simple beauty."

"She didn't wear a lot of makeup," Green said. "She was very conservative in her dress. I don't remember ever seeing her knees — or her cleavage. No ma'am."

Floyd asked her cousin what the hardest part was about caring for her aunt and uncle.

"Auntie was very headstrong about wanting to die on her own terms," Green said. "The cancer was eating her from the inside out. And she declared that she didn't want to receive any chemo or radiation and she wanted to die at her home."

Hadiyah-Nicole Green (right) with her "Auntie" Ora Lee Smith. Green founded the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in honor of her late aunt.
Courtesy of Hadiyah-Nicole Green

She said her aunt just wanted to make sure she saw her youngest son get married and watch Green graduate from college.

She did both.

At her graduation from Alabama A&M University in 2003, Green looked over at her aunt and saw her tearing up.

"She deteriorated within a matter of months," she said.

Just three months after she died, Uncle General Lee Smith was also diagnosed with cancer.

"They were really all I had," Green said. "And for them both to be affected by cancer — it was very disturbing." The losses strengthened her determination to work toward finding a cure. During her fourth year at graduate school, Green began researching cancer treatments.

Even as she worked long hours in the lab, she couldn't help but feel her aunt's presence.

"Untangling the code of the chemistry took me back to the days of having to untangle Auntie's jewelry," said Green. "It really was a meticulous process of picking through and unlooping. And to have the patience to sit there with something long enough, day after day — it was, to me, almost a one-to-one correlation."

"And it opened up for me like a gift," she said. "I'm like, 'I'm in this lab killing cancer.' It, to me, seems that I was born to do this."

In 2012, Green earned a PhD in physics from University of Alabama at Birmingham. More recently, she broke ground in developing a cancer treatment that's been proven to eliminate tumors in mice using nanoparticles and laser technology.

"You know, maybe if they hadn't raised me and I didn't have all these heart strings attached to them, I could have just moved on and gone on with life," she said. "But I couldn't."

"Because it was personal," Floyd said.

"Because it was personal. Yeah," Green said.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman and Von Diaz.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On this Friday, it's time for StoryCorps. By the time she was 4, Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green had lost her mother and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in St. Louis. In her early 20s, they were both diagnosed with cancer. She came to StoryCorps with her cousin Tenika Floyd to remember them.

TENIKA FLOYD: What comes to mind when you think of your aunt and uncle?

HADIYAH-NICOLE GREEN: My best memories were big family gatherings, where we would sit for hours and pick greens...

FLOYD: (Laughter).

GREEN: ...Collard greens and turnip greens, (laughter) mustard greens. We would cook all day. And Auntie - she didn't wear a lot of makeup, and she was a simple beauty. She was very conservative in her dress. I don't remember ever seeing her knees or her cleavage (laughter).

FLOYD: No, ma'am.

GREEN: No, ma'am (laughter).

FLOYD: What was the hardest part about caring for them?

GREEN: Auntie was very headstrong about wanting to die on her own terms. The cancer was eating her from the inside out. And she declared that she didn't want to receive any chemo or radiation. And she wanted to die at her home. And she wanted to see her youngest son get married and see me graduate from college.

FLOYD: OK.

GREEN: And she actually came down to Alabama A&M for my graduation. I remember looking over and seeing her tear up. She deteriorated within a matter of months. And then three months after she passed, Uncle General Lee was diagnosed with cancer. They were really all I had. And for them both to be affected by cancer - it was very disturbing. I started working on cancer treatments around my fourth year in graduate school. And untangling the code of the chemistry took me back to the days of having to untangle Auntie's jewelry. It really was a meticulous process of picking through and unlooping.

And to have the patience to sit there with something long enough day after day - it was to me almost a one-to-one correlation. And it opened up for me like a gift. And I'm like, I'm in this lab killing cancer. It to me seems that I was born to do this, you know? Maybe if they hadn't raised me and I didn't have all these heart strings attached to them, I could've just moved on and gone on with life. But I couldn't.

FLOYD: Because it was personal.

GREEN: Because it was personal. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That was Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green speaking with her cousin Tenika Floyd. Dr. Green is an assistant professor at Morehouse School of Medicine. She also founded the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in honor of her late aunt. That conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.