By Nataly Naser AL Deen (YES 2006 - 2007, Lebanon, hosted by CCI in Hilo, HI)
My name is Nataly Naser AL Deen, and I am a YES program alumna from Lebanon. I am also a 2014-2015 Fulbright alumna and currently a 4th year Ph.D. Candidate at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Cell and Molecular Biology. I attended Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C. as a Fulbright Foreign Student Scholar and pursued my master’s degree in Tumor Biology/Cancer Research in 2014–2015. I received my Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology (pre-med) from the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2013 as a MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar. As a YES scholar I lived with a host family in Hawaii for a year and attended Hilo High School as foreign exchange student from 2006 to 2007. I am forever grateful to AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State for granting me these once-in-a-lifetime experiences and helping me become the woman and young researcher I am today.
Through my experiences in the U.S., I learned the importance of providing for the community, especially when it comes to cancer prevention and lifestyle changes. During my Fulbright year, I was touched by an initiative for cancer survivors led by Dr. Priscilla A. Furth and I was inspired to create my own health exercise support group for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon called “Pink Steps”, which was made possible in 2015 through a generous Fulbright Alumni Community Action Grant (ACAG). Pink Steps aims to promote physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle in breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. Pink Steps is designed to increase the fitness level in survivors through daily walks (10,000 steps/day) performed at home or work, which are monitored through pedometers. Every Saturday we meet for a group supervised walk at sunset along with a session of yoga, Zumba, belly dancing, or core exercise. We also have nutritionists that offer dietary advice, and we sometimes hold support group and stress-relief sessions. We also participate in organized group hikes and in the Beirut Marathon.
Pink Steps has fostered a safe community for empowering female cancer survivors (especially breast cancer survivors) who have a common goal: to increase and improve their quality of life in order to combat cancer and prevent recurrence. Through our movement, we try to challenge the misconception that cancer patients should not exercise or be physically active. On the contrary, we advocate that they need to exercise and eat healthier to feel stronger and fitter. We all forget about the fact that the participants are cancer survivors when we are walking on the green field or exercising in the activity room. The ladies are all fit, strong, energetic women who are full of life! One of our lovely participants shared with us how exercising always felt like an impossible mountain to climb. Today, she feels healthier and stronger, and one of her happiest moments during the day is when her fitness tracker buzzes, informing her that she has reached her daily goal of 10,000 steps.
While I a student pursuing cancer research, my first cousin, Norma, was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer at the age of 31. When I came back home, and as I was sitting through Norma’s chemotherapy cycles, I saw how resilient and brave she was. However, I also felt her need for a positive change. This is how Norma inspired me to create Pink Steps, to spread positivity and empower breast cancer survivors from all ages, to get up each day and think of the healthy changes they are about to embrace. I combined my passion for cancer research, my keenness for effecting change in my community, and my love for dance and sports into one loving positive family called Pink Steps. I am also dedicating my Ph.D. thesis work to studying and characterizing the different molecular profiles of young Lebanese women diagnosed with breast cancer. I will commit my career to cancer research and advocating prevention through lifestyle practices.
I have had the opportunity to present on my Pink Steps initiative to a number of people. I was selected to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to Physiology and Medicine to represent my institution, The American University of Beirut, AUB, and Lebanon amongst 600 young scientists from 84 different countries and 39 Nobel Laureates. This experience was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I was honored to have taken several roles at the meeting, including being a panelist along with Laureate Prof. Peter Agre in a Press Talk titled ‘Innovations in Health Care for Developing Countries’ and 50 international journalists, where I talked about my Pink Steps initiative.
I consider my personal development as my greatest and proudest YES accomplishment. I departed on the YES program as a 15-year old girl from Baalbeck, with lots of ambition and inertia, but little resources and tools to achieve what I was always capable of. As I overcame my fear and ventured into this amazing experience, I became limitless and unstoppable. Attending a big public high school during my YES year in Hawaii taught me various skills. Being a member of the swimming and water polo varsity teams at Hilo High taught me a plethora of personal and social skills. It was the first time I competed in sports activities. During swimming, we were evaluated based on our previous records. I learned how to set goals for myself and excel. In water polo, I learned the importance of being a valuable team member. It required me to become a strategic planner, stay alert, and predict the next moves as a team.
My confidence and public speaking and networking skills stemmed from attending Hilo High and interacting with thousands of high school students and teachers. I learned how to handle myself better in social and professional settings, by networking and meeting new people. While in Hawaii I was given a golden opportunity to spend a day at the Hawaii House of Representatives in Honolulu with Senator Clifton Tsuji and his team. I also was privileged to spend a day in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill with members of the American Congress. As a 15-year old young woman, I knew then that nothing was impossible, and I kept on working to achieve my goals and give back. The YES program trained me to become an outspoken independent woman, and that is why I never spared any opportunity to attend conferences and networking events, to spread awareness and nourish my skills.