The CDI Experts: Kwok and the Pursuit of Wellness Alongside Health   

The CDI Experts: Kwok and the Pursuit of Wellness Alongside Health

Gary Kwok

Cancer strikes anyone - even the young. With more and more people surviving cancer with groundbreaking treatments, it has opened up a whole new chapter in many lives which means new needs - in the sense of both physical, and mental, health.

For Gary Kwok, one of the more recent arrivals at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI), the concern is really for young cancer survivors. Children and adolescents who beat life-threatening diseases have their whole lives ahead of them - and it needs to be better understood how they adjust to such dynamic swings in their youth, and everything after. Kwok, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist who joined the CDI’s Cancer Prevention Precision Control Institute (CPPCI) in late 2023, bringing a background in psychology, social work, and public health. His projects aim to leverage digital health interventions, such as apps on smartphones, and to promote meditation and wellness to benefit these survivors using mentoring.

“For them it’s kind of like they’re carrying this chronic illness, and they’re not sure about their medical status from an early age,” he said recently. “My goal is to use digital interventions and to improve the quality of life. That’s where I’m at.”

“Gary Kwok is an important person to help our cancer prevention experts do more using the latest tools and technology,” said David Perlin, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the CDI.

Building an App

Kwok was working his way toward his Master’s degree in counseling during his graduate years. But one aspect of the work as a research assistant absolutely gripped him. He noticed that questions being asked for patients who were very ill would veer into the aspect of the spiritual (though not necessarily religious). Some had a positive prognosis, others had a dire medical outlook. But all seemed to wrestle with meaning, and their diagnosis’s place in context.

But what leapt out at him was those who refused to take part in these surveys. The look in their eyes, and their untold stories, were something that fascinated Kwok.

“It wasn’t the people that agreed to participate,” recalled Kwok. “It was the ones who didn’t.

“I realized that to these suffering people, they didn’t want to do research, they didn’t want to answer questions,” he continued. “They wanted to be cured. They wanted life to go on. It helped check me, and helped me develop more empathy in my work, which I think is what underpins everything I do now.”

Kwok got involved in the technological side of things, using the latest digital tools. While working toward his graduate degrees, he found himself learning and adopting the latest digital methods for research.

That, of course, led to apps - the most convenience and omnipresent of interfaces now in the 21st century.

Ten Percent Happier is one of the most popular meditation apps on the market currently. Kwok worked and help to improve that app from a research standpoint while he pursued his doctorate.

But Kwok thinks there can be so much more, beyond what’s currently being done.

“We can create all these really cool apps. They automate things. But you just kind of look at it on your phone,” he said. “How do we incorporate the human aspect, the human touch, for people that will last, especially for young people? That’s what I’m interested in.”

The foundation of Kwok’s published science started with the 2018 paper in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, one entitled “Spiritual Needs and Perception of Quality of Care and Satisfaction with Care in Hematology/Medical Oncology Patients: a Multicultural Assessment.”

“I was doing a lot of work then - but that paper is the one that says, this is my work, and the foundation of where I’m headed,” said Kwok.

The conclusion of the paper: “Spiritual needs are common in an ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse cancer patient population but may differ by cultural background. High levels of spiritual need are associated with lower levels of satisfaction and diminished perception of quality of care. Training clinicians to address patients' spiritual concerns, with attention to cultural differences, may improve patients' experiences of care.”

Kwok continued this kind of focus with publications about sun-protection practices among young cancer survivors, and studying the socio-dynamics of the same groups with respect to COVID-19 vaccination rate.

CDI Project

Now Kwok sees his goals at CDI as a twofold, complementary mission: to develop digital interventions such as mindfulness or meditation apps; and also to create a project to train peer mentors to help those better grapple with their disease and health recoveries, especially among young cancer survivors.

His approach, with a counseling background, intends to be holistic. That fits in with the CPPCI and its mission. Currently Kwok and team are launching qualitative interview studies to under the needs of young cancer survivors, with the objective of incorporating that into peer-mentor training. From there, the data can be tested to further refine how best to reach these groups.

Ultimately, too, the use of the latest digital technology could help bolster those efforts, said Kwok.

“But like Lisa (Carter-Bawa) says, the bigger goal is to be able to move the science forward,” said Kwok. “It can be small steps, or big leaps, but as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, and we’re being innovative and curious, that’s our North Star.”

A Balance

Kwok grew up in Hong Kong, but he moved to New York at the age of 12. After his undergraduate degree at the University at Buffalo, he moved to New Jersey to pursue his further degrees at Rutgers University, which brought him to New Jersey.

His time is at a premium now, with three children ages 6, 4, and 2. His hobbies, as such, are running after those children in his free time - and also finding time to have a mind-clearing jog each morning.

“I wake up, get a little exercise, then get the kids to school so I can get back to the science,” said Kwok. “But the next thing you know, the kids are back from school, and it’s back to parenting. It’s a balance.”

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