Faculty and Staff Research

Inside the mind of researcher Jessica Gorman

My primary focus is developing a multi-level approach that will help young cancer survivors get the reproductive health information, care and support that they need.

Jessica Gorman

Assistant Professor Jessica Gorman joined the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in September 2015. She previously served as a project scientist at University of California San Diego’s Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center and Department of Pediatrics and as a lecturer at San Diego State’s Graduate School of Public Health. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from University of California San Diego, an MPH in Health Behavior and Health Education from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a PhD in Public Health (Health Behavior) from University of California San Diego and San Diego State University’s joint doctoral program.

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I’ve been interested in women’s health for a long time. This is very broad topic, and as a doctoral student I struggled briefly trying to find a research direction that inspired me. I looked for inspiration within my mentor’s dietary intervention study with breast cancer survivors. Some of the participants were diagnosed during their reproductive years. After learning more and talking with some other young breast cancer survivors, there was an evident need for more research focused on their post-cancer fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding experiences.

As part of my dissertation, I conducted interviews with these young women, and their stories were inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking. Their genuine appreciation for the work I was doing also helped to fuel my continued efforts to further understand the issues important to adolescent and young adult cancer survivors and to develop interventions to support their quality of life.”

What does your current research entail?

“My primary focus is developing a multi-level approach that will help young cancer survivors get the reproductive health information, care and support that they need. Fertility and parenthood are a major focus, as many young survivors are forced to rethink their plans because their cancer treatment has limited their options. This can be a real struggle for survivors, and there are a lot of challenges to improving the situation. The survivors themselves are often uncertain and have concerns, and then there are financial costs and health system-level barriers. Health care professionals are often inconsistent in how they communicate with their patients about these issues. Beyond fertility, there are also other important reproductive health considerations, including contraception and sexual health after cancer. Although some progress has been made to meet the reproductive health needs of cancer survivors over the past several years, there is a lot of room for improvement.

During this past year, I’ve had a collaborative project with researchers at Oregon Health & Science University to determine the gaps in available resources and programs that support patient-centered communication between adolescent/young adult cancer survivors and their health care providers. The focus of this project is broad, understanding that reproductive health is only one of many priorities for young survivors. In another study, we’re collecting survey data about the fertility and parenthood experiences and concerns of young adult male cancer survivors. We are looking at the effect these have on their quality of life so that we can compare the needs and experiences of male and female survivors.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“The findings of my research are what continue to spark my interest and direct the next steps. For example, in my past qualitative studies, female cancer survivors have talked about the important role that their partners play in their reproductive health decisions and experiences. My next qualitative study, in collaboration with Associate Dean Marie Harvey, will involve interviews with female cancer survivors and their male partners. We will interview cancer survivor-partner dyads to understand how couples communicate about reproductive and sexual health concerns in cancer survivorship, what resources they access for support and information, and how they interact with their health care providers about their sexual and reproductive concerns.”

How will this make a difference?

“I hope that my efforts will reduce the burden young cancer survivors face and improve their quality of life. My work will inform interventions to support young adult cancer survivors in talking with their partners and their health care providers about their reproductive health. In the long term, I also hope to reduce barriers with their health care providers and the health system.”

What’s next for you?

“Beyond my work with cancer survivors, I also have a strong interest in maternal and child health. This was initially inspired by my past work as a doula and by my postdoc training, which included collaborating on a study to prevent alcohol-exposed pregnancy in an American Indian/Alaska Native community. One project on the horizon focuses on prevention of alcohol exposure during pregnancy using a community-based approach.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“I’m very fortunate because I’ve had several fantastic mentors during my training. Over the years they have given me some excellent advice that has helped me land where I am today.

The two most consistent and valuable pieces of advice I have received are one, find something you are passionate about; and two, be persistent in achieving your goals. These two things sound simple and may even be obvious, but I have found them to be valuable guides at multiple points in my career.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“There is a lot of important work to be done in public health! To find the place where you can make a difference, I would give the same advice that my mentors gave to me – find your passion and be persistent. Also, be curious and brave. Sometimes, you just have to take a leap!”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I enjoy spending time outdoors, as well as getting out of town and exploring the world with my husband and two children. We’ve only been in Oregon for a year, so we still have a lot of local exploring to do!”