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UTA Graduate Kim Rodriguez Brings Public Health Expertise to Cancer Care and Research

Kim Rodriguez fights cancer for a living. It’s a quest she’s been on since her early twenties. “My maternal grandfather, Jose, had non-small cell lung cancer,” she shared. “I made the decision to pursue oncology in 2005, when his disease became metastatic, and our family decided onUTA BSPH graduate Kim Rodriguez hospice care.”

Jose died in early 2006, and the following year Rodriguez began training to become a Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR), a role now known as Oncology Data Specialist (ODS). She is from Burleson, Texas, and studied for her certification after graduating from the health information technology program at nearby Tarrant County College in 2009.

She accepted a cancer registry position with Baylor Scott & White Health in Fort Worth the same year, working on data projects for tumor boards, pre-surgery cancer staging and program accreditation. A few months later, her mother, Cristela, was diagnosed with stage IIIB inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). It came as a surprise, since there was no family history of the rare disease. According to the American Cancer Society, IBC accounts for only 1%-5% of all breast cancers diagnosed each year.

“My mom became a patient in the hospital that I was working for, so it made it even more real to me,” she remembered. Her mother was also uninsured, and Rodriguez used her knowledge of cancer resources to help. “I was able to seek assistance, to get her connected to a nurse navigator,” she said. “She was signed up for Medicaid.”

Cristela endured chemotherapy, radiation, rounds of other drugs and interventions, a mastectomy, lymph node sampling and staged breast reconstruction over the course of a year during her treatment. For seven years after that, she was on Tamoxifen, an estrogen agent. “It was a positive journey at the end of it,” Rodriguez said, “because here we are 15 years later, and my mom’s still with us.”

The experience was humbling, too, as Rodriguez learned more about the nonmedical factors that can impact community response to cancer. For example, the financial, cultural and institutional barriers that may lead to lack of screening or late-stage diagnosis.

As her career thrived and she progressed to cancer registry management, accreditation and consulting, Rodriguez never forgot those lessons. In 2018, she enrolled in the online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at The University of Texas at Arlington. “I was looking at what would best fit my current career path,” she said. “I realized that public health was a great fit.” She graduated in May 2022.

In November 2022, Rodriguez accepted a new position with Eisenhower Health. She’s currently the Cancer Data Systems Manager for the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage, California, a not-for-profit diagnostic and treatment facility serving patients in the Coachella Valley and Inland Empire region. She believes that having public health expertise made her stand out among other candidates for the role.

“Having gone through the bachelor’s program now, I definitely see the value—and my cancer program sees the value—in making that impact in the community,” she said.

Advocacy, Mentoring and Public Health

Rodriguez says the online BSPH classes helped her discover new avenues for her work as an oncology professional and deepened her understanding of how to connect individuals with services they need. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) courses and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certifications available as part of the curriculum also led to new insights.

“Taking the courses and doing the CDC and FEMA training really opened my eyes to see more of what I was missing,” she said. “The vulnerable population is much wider than what I thought.”

Studying emergency preparedness alerted her to a specific gap in her knowledge as well: safety planning for people with disabilities during severe weather events. “For me, that really hit home,” she said, noting that her mother is hearing impaired. “I didn’t think about having to do XYZ to prepare my mom in case there’s a natural disaster,” she continued. “Like, what’s our plan if there’s a tornado alert or if communication is lost?”

Her favorite aspect of learning at UTA, however, was working with BSPH Program Director Dr. Becky Garner, who offered ongoing mentoring and support. “She made me love public health even more, just by being so helpful and encouraging me, advocating for me, but also encouraging me to advocate for myself,” Rodriguez said.

She interned for Dr. Garner during the Public Health Cumulative Experience Learning Activity course, which culminated in her final senior project for the online BSPH program.

Rodriguez and the other interns reviewed one of the first classes students take in the program, Public Health: Principles and Populations. They advised on updates required, incorporated new audiovisual content tailored for adult learners and showcased their work for academic colleagues. “That was really something that I connected with,” she recalled. “It was great to not just put together the work, but also present our work in a public forum.”

Dr. Garner nominated Rodriguez and the other interns on the project for UTA’s Students in Clinical Excellence Award, presenting it to the group right before they graduated. “I feel like I owe a lot of my education to her,” Rodriguez said of Dr. Garner, “because she was just so invested.”

Rodriguez says the program’s flexibility was key to her success as well. “Since I was also working full time, it really fit what I needed in my life,” she recalled. “I could work during the daytime and then study in the evenings and on the weekends. It really was something that benefited me.”

New Horizons and Opportunities in Oncology

Looking back, Rodriguez is proud that she was able to earn her bachelor’s degree without compromising her work in oncology. Learning online accommodated her business travel schedule and allowed her to take advantage of important professional opportunities. “Sometimes I have to go to accreditation or educational conferences, so I have to be gone for a week,” she said. “It was really nice to have everything laid out for you and then just be able to plan your life around that.”

She even found time to work on her second scholarly research publication while studying for the BSPH. Her first article, Risk Factors for Re-Excision Following Breast-Conserving Surgery, was published by the Oncology Nursing Society in 2017. While at UTA, she collaborated with Dr. Huy Quoc Nong, an internal medicine resident at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, on the 10-year case study Demographics, Characteristics, and Outcomes of Male Breast Cancer Patients at the Methodist Health System, Dallas, USA.

At the time, Rodriguez supervised cancer data services at Methodist Dallas, and she worked closely with Nong, pulling the data and performing a record review. Nong then did a second analysis and wrote the manuscript. It was published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science in 2023, with Rodriguez listed as an author.

“It was really exciting to take what I was learning in the program and help deliver the data that was actually published in a paper,” she said, adding that research is another part of her career that’s taking off. “Our cancer committee chairman, who’s our colorectal surgeon, is already looking to see what papers we can get together and start writing,” she continued. “It’s really exciting to see how it’s all coming together.”

Rodriguez found time to serve as a board member for the National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA) while in the BSPH program, too, and she is currently the Cancer Surgery Standards Program Liaison for the organization. In 2024, she’ll be speaking on an accreditation panel during the NCRA Annual Conference, presenting a poster abstract. She’ll also be co-presenting a special webinar for the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries and starting a master’s program in public health at the University of California, Irvine in the fall.

“I’m just so amazed at how much has changed in the year since I graduated,” Rodriguez said, acknowledging her leadership role and additional success. She’s also been gratified to receive a quick return on her investment in a degree. “I didn’t expect myself to make six figures,” she smiled.

Rodriguez hopes to become a director for a cancer program or registry in the future or move into oncology hospital administration. She encourages other busy healthcare professionals with a career goal in sight to consider the online BSPH for all that it offers. “The program really worked and delivered what it promised,” she confirmed.

“Having that core education from UTA has really changed the trajectory of my career path for me. I am so glad that I found this program,” she said. “It’s worth the investment.”

Learn more about the online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at The University of Texas at Arlington.


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