Taking ACTION: UK Markey Center program addresses high cancer rates in Appalachia


Samuel Colmar

Nathan Vanderford poses for a photo in his office on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the UK Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

Natalia Garcia, Reporter

Appalachia may be known for its scenic mountain views and dense forests, but the region also happens to be home to the highest cancer rates in America, according to the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries website.

Based on the high cancer rates and education needs specifically in Eastern Kentucky, the idea for the Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) Program was born. 

The ACTION Program was started in 2016 by its current director Nathan Vanderford at UK’s Markey Cancer Center. Having grown up in an Appalachian county in rural Tennessee, and ultimately losing his father to cancer in 2010, Vanderford said he understands firsthand the impact that cancer has on the Appalachian community. 

Working as the main founder and director of ACTION since its beginning, Vanderford has been able to take the difficulties he faced and turn them into something much bigger. 

“Having the same characteristics as students from (Eastern Kentucky), it really is a passion project of mine to do this kind of work to help students from the area to be successful,” Vanderford said. 

Each year, ACTION has 20 high school participants and 16 undergraduate participants. The program is based around “hands-on, problem based, experiential” learning, Vanderford said. 

The goal of ACTION is to recruit students from Eastern Kentucky and help support them academically, specifically trying to prepare and motivate them for careers in cancer research and treatment. The program’s hope is that those who choose to stay in a healthcare-related field would be trained in oncology and would practice in their home communities or somewhere nearby, Vanderford said.

The program has three main components: research, education and outreach. Through ACTION, students are able to participate in an abundance of educational activities that can either earn them academic credit or help them gain experience in this field. These activities range from helping with cancer research to going out into their communities to help better educate the people of Eastern Kentucky about the cancer problem that is plaguing the state, Vanderford said. 

According to Vanderford, the lack of access to health care, low education rates and high poverty rates are just some of the factors that contribute to the cancer epidemic in Kentucky.

“It’s a complicated mix of issues that create really a perfect storm for why cancer rates are so bad here,” Vanderford said. 

Although ACTION is a newer program, its impact can already be seen. Of the 40 alumni from the program, 33 are in graduate school or professional school, and 25 of them are at UK. All high school students that have gone through the program have graduated high school. Some undergraduates are even published authors. 

“I think this is evidence that we’re having an impact and the program is being effective doing what we hoped it would do,” Vanderford said. 

Olivia Thornsbury, a sophomore biology major on the pre-med track, has experienced these impacts first hand. 

A Pikeville, Kentucky native, Thornsbury first heard about this program from a high school teacher who had a son go through the program while he was at UK. Being from Eastern Kentucky herself, Thornsbury, like Vanderford, has also been affected by Appalachia’s cancer crisis.

“I feel like it’s pretty common for most people from Appalachia to have some sort of connection to cancer just because of all the environmental factors that are there,” Thornsbury said. “You hear the word cancer a lot to the point where it’s like ‘Oh really?’ but it’s not surprising.” 

The impact that ACTION has had on Thornsbury is nothing she could have expected. 

“I’ve screamed it to the rooftops of anyone that will listen … it’s truly changed the trajectory of my undergraduate career,” Thornsbury said. 

Thornsbury currently participates in prostate cancer research and is also helping Vanderford reach more high schools in Eastern Kentucky to promote the program. 

Being involved and active in the program, Thorsnbury is hopeful that ACTION will have a great impact on the Eastern Kentucky community. 

“I don’t think anybody has the passion to care for Appalachia like those from it … I think that this program helps put you in the mindset of building that passion for helping people and strengthening your ties to your community and changing that trajectory of cancer incidences,” Thornsbury said.

While the program itself has been successful, it’s the passion and participation of those students looking to better their communities that really makes the biggest difference, Vanderford said. 

“It’s a phenomenal program, and we’ve been so successful and it’s really the students that make that magic happen,” he said. 

With a growing scholarship fund, Vanderford hopes to recruit more students to ACTION. The program is currently recruiting undergraduate students. Applications are due on Friday, April 7, at 5 p.m. Vanderford urges all students who are interested to visit the program’s website and apply.