#MyDukeCancerStory: Research Coordinator Learns Resilience


Hoofing it up the steps and zipping through the halls across Duke’s medical campus, Crystal Cates, MS, CCRP, is a clinical research coordinator on a mission.

On any given day one can find her on her way to collect specimens in the operating room, back to the lab to process them or off to see patients in clinic to discuss clinical trial enrollment or general blood and tissue donations to the biobank.

Cates works for the BioRepository and Precision Pathology Center (BRPC) in the Department of Pathology, a Duke Cancer Institute Shared Resource. The BRPC locates, obtains, catalogues, analyzes and grades cancerous and non-cancerous blood and tissue samples for use in clinical trials (it’s currently supporting more than 50) and other research.

Consenting cancer patients can have a potentially life-saving impact by helping to further the scientific understanding of cancer. However, approaching patients to consent to donate can sometimes be tricky. It requires the kind of skill and compassion that comes naturally to Cates. 

“Cancer patients are going through many challenges,” Cates said. “It can be overwhelming for them. And here I am, showing up wanting to talk to them about research, when that may be the furthest thing from their mind — when they’re just starting to wrap their mind around having cancer.”

A clinical research coordinator with the BRPC for more than five years, dealing with cancer is not only central to Cates’ work, it also hits home.  Her uncle lost his three-year battle with liver cancer in September, at the age of 74. 

Cates shouldered some of the caregiver role, checking in or running errands for him on weekends and, sometimes, just being a shoulder on which to lean. Cates also helped him at Duke through diagnosis and treatment.

“Because I’m the one in the family who works at Duke, I know how to navigate the system and understand the process, in terms of cancer care,” said Cates. “My uncle knew that he could count on me to meet him and his wife at clinic appointments when available to help assist him in asking the right questions or to address any concerns with his providers. On multiple occasions, he could count on me to be at his side while he was in the hospital following a medical procedure or a medication complication."  

She already knew many of the gastroenterology physicians, having started her Duke career with the GI Hepatology Research Group Biorepository at the Duke Clinical Research Institute in 2006 — working with hepatitis B and hepatitis C patients, enrolling them in research protocols, and collecting and processing their specimens to save for future research.

As much as work and family life have been intertwined, Cates said she’s tried to “compartmentalize” as much as possible.

“You can imagine that it’s been challenging because here I am dealing with cancer in my own family and I’m coming to work every day where I have to do my job serving other cancer patients and their families,” said Cates whose work involves 85 to 90 percent cancer patients and the rest lung and liver transplant patients. 

Cates likes to unwind by taking daily walks with the “apples of her eye” — her two-year-old daughter and husband — and their peekapoo, a Pekingese-poodle mix. She’s also happy to settle in with a good mystery novel or autobiography and enjoys traveling to visit family and friends and attending area arts and church events.

Like others, downtime allows Cates to return to work refreshed to do the job she enjoys — a job she never envisioned she’d have.

“I thought that I’d initially work in a lab and just do bench research for a while and see where it took me, but I got in the lab and had a rude awakening,” said Cates, a Durham native who earned an MS in Biology from North Carolina Central University and a BS in Zoology from North Carolina State University. “I realized I couldn’t be the person that could be content looking up under a microscope all day long without interaction beyond colleagues and peers. Bench research just didn’t impact me the way that working in clinical research does.”

She discovered she needed interaction with patients to make her feel she was “really doing something to make a difference.” 

“After more than 11 years, I’ve learned a lot about this field and a lot from patients,” said Cates. “Resilience, for one thing. I enjoy being of service to people, in this capacity. It’s been challenging at times but very rewarding most of all.”


Circle photo (top) and blog front page photo of Crystal Cates by Huth Photography