URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — A University of Illinois researcher who works with members of the Cancer Center at Illinois is looking for ways to improve the quality of life for breast cancer patients — and she’s using her own experience as a guide.

Researcher Catherine Applegate said her diagnosis came during an unexpected time of her life. 

“I was 29 and going through the last year of my Ph.D,” said Applegate. “It was unlikely that it was a breast cancer lump, but it turned out to be positive. And at the time I was working on my Ph.D in cancer research.”

Applegate went through a year of chemotherapy while balancing school work. With help from friends, family and colleagues, she turned her unfortunate news to a driving force to getting her degree.

“A lot of people ask me if I’m angry, for example, but I’m not,” Applegate said. “I feel pretty fortunate to have had my diagnosis and my treatment because I think it gives me a unique perspective as a cancer researcher into first-hand patient experience.”

She and other Cancer Center at Illinois researchers are looking to help others. They’re working on making cancer treatments more effective so patients have a better time tolerating them. Drugs, imaging devices and reducing toxicity are some of ways they hope to improve how cancer is detected and treated.

Applegate said having resilience and perseverance is key, and that many people can learn from those who went through so much.

“It gave me a lot more insight into being more empathetic and sympathetic toward other people who are going through difficult circumstances,” said Applegate. “It brings awareness to the fact that we need to do a little bit more and need to have more research that is aimed toward improving patient lives and outcomes.”

Applegate said that through various projects, cancer could potentially be caught earlier, and patients could have an easier time going through treatments.