Focus study on Vivien W. Chen, Ph.D.

Published 3:51 am Sunday, June 15, 2008

“One out of two men will get cancer in their lifetime and one out of three women will get cancer in their lifetime,” said Vivien W. Chen, Ph.D., of Carriere. Chen is an epidemiologist whose statistics on cancer come from years of study and research. Chen explains being an epidemiologist as being a “medical detective” of sorts. Her objective is to uncover why certain types of cancer occur and any trends that might lead to prevention.

Chen was born in China to parents who emphasized education as a major priority. “My parents left China when the communists took over and I was four years old,” she said. Leaving everything behind and getting on that last boat to Hong Kong meant the couple raised their children with next to nothing in a place where they could barely communicate because of a major dialect difference.

Chen said her family was poor but all the children were, in a sense, very spoiled. Having time to study and do school work was so important to her parents, that their children were made to do very little in the way of chores. Even when the family got their first T.V., her dad would sit inches away to hear it, because he didn’t want to distract his children from their work. Looking back, Chen is extremely proud of her parents for giving all seven of their children the opportunity to go to college.

She also remembers them nudging her in the direction of several distinct fields of study: education, health and science. For her undergraduate course of study, Chen chose biology. “I had the option to be a nurse or a doctor and somehow I just thought being around all those sick people and death would be emotionally too much for me, so I took biology and became a biology teacher for three years,” she said.

While Chen loved every day that she taught, she didn’t think she wanted to be a biology teacher for the rest of her life. With whole-hearted support and encouragement from her parents to further her education, she decided to come to the U.S. and continue her studies.

In her first year at the University of Oklahoma, Chen had an epidemiology professor who ultimately became her advisor. She said that he made the course so interesting, she just knew that being in the field of epidemiology is what she wanted to do. “Somehow I had to know more about cancer,” she said.

Chen currently works as a Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Louisiana State University. She also mentors junior faculty members and has 15 faculty working under her. The department is in the process of developing a program for doctoral students.

In addition, Chen serves as the director for the Louisiana Cancer Registry. Chen and her team are responsible for registering and following every single cancer case in the state of Louisiana. Each year they add more than 22,000 new patients and they process between 40,000 and 50,000 records. The Registry contains extremely detailed information on each patient who is followed from the time they are diagnosed. Records kept include demographics, how a patient was diagnosed, stage of cancer when diagnosed and course of treatment. These facts are then used by research teams in a number of different cancer-related studies — a huge number of which Chen participates in herself.

Another important outcome of the Registry is that it helps to quell some cancer fears. For example, Chen explains, the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, at one time, became known as “cancer alley.” As rumors spread, people were afraid to move their families into that area to go to work.

“Using our data and really looking at the geographic area, it was able to allow us to find out that actually, if we compare cancer rates along the industrial corridor, they do not have higher rates than the rest of the state,” she said. It was this study that relieved a lot of apprehension about living and working in the area.

Chen was also part of a research team that did an exhaustive study on second hand smoke. The resulting paper that was published helped paved the way for a lot of the tobacco cessation programs that currently exist in the state of Louisiana.

#She is currently working with the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine Committee on a report to determine the effects of depleted Uranium on military veterans that may have had exposure. “We are just wrapping up with that report,” said Chen.

Chen also serves on numerous cancer-related advisory boards both nationally and internationally. Her role as President and board member in the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, earned her one of the highest awards in her field — the “Calum S. Muir Memorial Award.”

She received the “Champion of Public Service Award” from Tulane University and LSU recognized her for excellence in research, service and teaching. In August, she will be presented with the American Cancer Society “Spirit Award.”

Chen would like to add that while all Cancer is not preventable, her efforts in the field have proven that several types of cancer can be avoided through a healthier lifestyle.

When she is not hard at work, Chen spends her time at home, in Carriere, with her husband Richard Swenson. He is understandably very proud of his wife’s accomplishments. Accomplished in his own right, Swenson is a local artist whose inspired metal sculptures can be seen in several businesses throughout Picayune. Chen will sometimes collaborate with him on his metal turtles. She likes to paint them, giving them personality and an extra special charm.