Researcher Rebecca Cunningham named a Great Woman of Texas
By Jan Jarvis
Take the scenic route.
That’s the advice that Dr. Rebecca Cunningham gives young researchers starting their careers.
Despite a few bumps in the road – including a cancer diagnosis – Dr. Cunningham has managed to take her own advice. She encourages others to take their time finding their passion.
“Do not be afraid of making mistakes, as those can lead us to something more spectacular than we ever imagined,” she said.
Dr. Cunningham’s dedication to helping others has won her recognition as a Great Woman of Texas. For the past 12 years, the Fort Worth Business Press has hosted the Great Woman of Texas Awards. The award, which will be presented at a dinner on Nov. 6, recognizes women who have distinguished themselves in their careers and community.
Dr. Cunningham, Associate Professor for Pharmaceutical Sciences, certainly fits the bill.
A single mother during her undergraduate and part of her graduate studies, she pursued a career in science and never gave up on becoming a researcher.
At UNT Health Science Center, she has focused much of her research on the role of testosterone during aging. One of her goals is to determine how development and aging alters steroid hormonal responses in the central nervous system.
Currently, she is looking at insults that occur during pregnancy, such as sleep apnea, and how they affect cognitive issues later in life.
Cunningham manages to balance her dedication to research with her drive to help others with thyroid cancer through the non-profit she founded.
After she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2015, Dr. Cunningham recognized an unmet need that as a scientist and patient she felt uniquely qualified to address.
Before radiation treatment, patients often are required to follow a restrictive low-iodine diet that requires the elimination of dairy, sea salt, cured meat and other foods. Knowing which foods are safe to eat proved challenging for Dr. Cunningham, who was quick to realize how hard it must be for others.
That realization led to the Low Iodine Diet (LID) Community on Facebook, a private group that is packed with food suggestions and support for patients.
That group meets a huge need, said Tracee Parenti, BS, RN. who nominated Dr. Cunningham for the award. The two met through their mutual thyroid cancer journey.
“Our discussions were that there was a huge lack of evidence-based information for ourselves as well as other patients,” she said. “Instead of just accepting the fact that there wasn’t scientific information readily available, Becky—while undergoing surgery and treatment—took it upon herself to create a Facebook group about the low iodine diet.”
Five years later, the group has grown to more than 9,800 members, some as far away as Australia. Today, newly diagnosed thyroid cancer patients as well as doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals turn to the site for guidance on foods that are safe to eat.
Dr. Cunningham said she never envisioned the site would grow so much. But she is happy it has helped so many people.
Many continue to stay on the site after their treatment is completed to offer assistance to others by providing recipes and emotional support.
She encourages everyone to pursue their goals despite any barriers they encounter.
“Just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” she said. “You’re going to get there.”