By Aime T. Franco, Ph.D.
Dr. Franco is the chair-elect of the AACR Associate Member Council. As a fellow at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC, her research is focused on developing preclinical mouse models of thyroid cancer.
Eleven years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I am fortunate that the cancer was caught early and that I have been cancer-free for 10 years, but that experience will always stay with me. It solidified my career choice as a cancer researcher and strengthened my resolve to do everything I could to make sure others would not have to hear those words, "yes, it is cancer."
As both a survivor and a researcher, I knew that I had a unique perspective and the potential to have a powerful voice as an advocate in the political process, but I had no idea where to start or how to find that voice. I had always wanted to participate in a Hill Day event, where advocates travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with their congressional representatives, but it was mainly out of curiosity. I really wasn't convinced that those types of activities made much of a difference and I honestly didn't think that my presence, in particular, could make much of an impact.
I couldn't have been more wrong! As a volunteer participant in last month's Hill Day sponsored by One Voice Against Cancer (OVAC), a broad coalition of more than 40 cancer-related organizations, including the AACR, I discovered that my representatives did want to hear my story. I had the opportunity to meet with staff from the offices of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). In each office, I urged support for increased and sustained cancer research funding, but I also went a step further. I shared my story about surviving thyroid cancer and stressed that my research, which may someday prevent others from suffering from cancer, depended on their support. At the end of the day, all three offices pledged to make cancer research a priority and I knew that, by providing a human perspective, I had left a lasting impression about the importance of cancer research.
The OVAC Hill Day was primarily about advocating for cancer research funding, which is extremely important and critical to my future as a researcher. However, as a cancer survivor, especially a young survivor, there are many other issues that I think are priorities. I have an entire life ahead of me, with so many questions: Will the cancer come back? Are my children going to get cancer? Will I see my children grow old? How do I talk to them about cancer? Cancer is not just a physical disease, but a societal issue and we must not forget the social consequences of this disease. As researchers we must advocate for our future and continued funding, but we must not lose sight of what we are fighting for—a cure for cancer and long, fulfilling lives for all individuals affected by this disease.
I will definitely attend other Hill Days. It was overwhelming at first—telling my own story and helping staff to understand the promise of cancer research—but it got easier with every office visit. Advocacy is something that is not part of Ph.D. or postdoctoral training, and I was definitely out of my element initially. However, I think it is critical to push ourselves beyond our comfort limits, personally, professionally and scientifically. This experience has changed me and I will continue to strengthen the advocate's voice that I did not know I had. I think that we all have this voice, and we can all be advocates, we just need to make the choice to do so.
I would encourage all members of the AACR to speak up where and when they can to shape the future of cancer research, especially early career scientists who have a particular stake in the policy and funding debates on Capitol Hill. It does not have to be a Hill Day in Washington, D.C., it can be as simple as sending your story to your congressional representative, or getting involved with advocacy efforts at your own institution. We all have a story and a voice that can affect change; I have witnessed firsthand that one voice can make a difference.
Dr. Franco poses with Mr. Freddy
Nguyen, outside the U.S.
More from the July Edition of the AACR Cancer Policy Monitor: