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The right setting

July 2, 2014

Julia HamerJulia Hamer

By Alisa Kim

A stress fracture in her shinbone sidelined Julia Hamer’s training regimen, but the fourth-year University of Toronto neuroscience student isn’t one for complaining.

“It kind of worked out well in terms of being able to do research,” says Hamer, who normally spends 30 hours per week jumping, sprinting, and smashing and digging volleyballs at the High Performance Centre at Downsview Park, a facility in which the country’s top volleyball players are groomed.

Hamer is a member of the Canadian women’s senior beach volleyball team. She also is halfway through her studentship in the D+H SRI Summer Student Research Program.

Under the supervision of Dr. Sunil Verma, a researcher in the Odette Cancer Research Program, Hamer is assessing differences in quality of life and symptom burden among groups of women who have or have had breast cancer. These include newly diagnosed women, those receiving active follow-up care, women who are disease-free and those whose tumours are spreading to bone.

“We’re looking at different aspects of these patients’ lives: physical, emotional, social and functional—whether they’re able to work or not,” says Hamer. Her responsibilities are to obtain consent from patients to participate in the study and administer surveys. She is also analyzing the data and will help write the manuscript of the study.

The research will inform health care professionals of the most common symptoms and worries a patient with breast cancer may have. With this knowledge, practitioners can try and address those needs, says Hamer, who has a particular interest in the effects of a cancer diagnosis on a patient’s mental and physical health.

“It’s really interesting going into the lives of these women and finding out what they are passionate about and what they can’t do anymore. Or, if they are disease-free, they have a great appreciation for what they can do. Either end of the story is so powerful,” says Hamer, whose plans include a career in medicine.

She also has her sights set on representing Canada in the 2020 summer Olympic games. “I know exactly what I want, and it’s difficult to do both, but I’m going to try and find a way,” she says.

Throughout the school year, Hamer attended classes during the day and trained five hours a day, six days a week. Being an elite athlete can be all-consuming, so how does she do it? “I’ve always kept busy. It’s a lot of time management. You have to plan everything, even meals,” says the 22-year-old.

Hamer also likes challenges. “You can do a lot more than you think. I set a ‘mini-goal’ every day. As soon as I get over that, I do a little more. Maybe I can sprint for a minute instead of 30 seconds. I make everything a little game,” she says, smiling.

Although her injury has put her training on hold temporarily, Hamer is glad to focus on her academics. “I’m so happy to be here. It’s such a cool opportunity to be able to relate what knowledge I have about neuroscience to chronic disease. The different pieces are linking together.”

Julia Hamer