An advocate is someone who takes a public position on a cause or policy. My initial steps into lung cancer advocacy were as a spokesperson–I shared my story with the goal of spreading awareness (even a young, never smoker such as myself could get lung cancer) but also hope–although given a dire prognosis I was alive, thanks to an experimental therapy.
However, I was soon itching to do more and became a peer reviewer for the CDMRP—Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs. My background as an artist did little to prepare me for the rigor of scientific proposals, but I found that I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge.
I owed a lot to medical research and as a participant in three phase I clinical trials, I had some hands-on experience (fieldwork, if you will). It became clear that medical research was the aspect of advocacy that I was most interested in focusing on. When I heard about the AACR Scientist↔Survivor Program I knew it was the perfect fit for me.
The program coincides with the Annual Meeting for the American Association for Cancer Research and this year it was held in New Orleans. As anticipated, I refined my understanding of the basic biology of cancer (particularly a wonderful Mini Med School presented by Dr. Carolyn Compton on our first day) and also had the opportunity to sit in on not only plenary sessions but smaller presentations around topics including precision medicine and genomics. We attended a policy overview and a special session with the FDA, led by Dr. Richard Pazdur, who lost his wife to ovarian cancer (and also learned a lot about the drug regulatory process from a different perspective, that of the patient). Dr. Pazdur said something during this session that I found very impactful: ‘Patients aren’t for clinical trials. Clinical trials are for patients.’
Being at Dr. Jean Cui’s (she developed crizotinib) poster session and having her greet me as if she were expecting me for tea was pretty darn special. And I even had an out of body experience when I saw my lungs on the big screen during one of the plenaries (the presenter was Dr. Jeffrey Engleman and the topic was resistance to therapy, for which I am a poster child).
The single most significant thing I learned from my experience can be found in this statement from the AACR SSP online site:
The AACR Scientist↔Survivor Program is designed to build enduring partnerships among the leaders of the scientific, cancer survivor, and patient advocacy communities worldwide.
The word partnership. Far too often Patient as Partner–a term bandied about in medical circles now–is mere rhetoric. Western medicine is still in the process of transitioning from a very paternalistic practice to one in which the patient is in fact viewed as a partner in his or her own care. The AACR SSP program is trying to push that needle forward by empowering patients/advocates with true knowledge and understanding. It is an incredibly respectful viewpoint, and I am so grateful to Dr. Anna Barker for creating and sustaining this unique program. I encourage anyone who is interested in sharpening their advocacy skills to apply.
As for me? I came away committed to not just medical research, but the patient voice, and particularly that of patients with advanced, or metastatic disease. I’ve already had several opportunities to champion that cause, including a seat on a panel (Stakeholder Panel Discussion: What are the challenges and opportunities for research and delivery of care across the cancer journey?) at the American Cancer Society’s New England Cancer Center Leadership Roundtable this past Monday. At the conclusion of the meeting participants were queried as to the greatest takeaway from the day. And the unanimous response? The patient voice.