Survivorship Issues Reshape a Researcher’s Career

Guest post by Hillary Stires, PhD

When I started my postdoc at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in May 2016, I was thrilled to experience a truly comprehensive training in breast cancer. During my tenure, I decided to take advantage of opportunities offered to me outside of the lab to learn about cancer from every angle, including attending weekly breast tumor boards and presenting my work to the Georgetown Breast Cancer Advocates (GBCA).

I’ll never forget at the end of my presentation with GBCA, one of the advocates, Jamie, asked what the side effects were for a new treatment I was proposing. I was proud that I had done some research on this and confidently stated, “they are the same as tamoxifen,” a commonly used breast cancer treatment.

Hillary Stires

Jamie looked me square in the eye and said, “For some women, taking tamoxifen is like popping a Tic Tac, but for others the side effects are debilitating and cause them to stop taking the drug.”

I was astounded. I had spent the last six years as a PhD student learning how to interpret data and compare averages. But patients are not averages – they are individuals. After this experience, I recognized that I could not truly accomplish the comprehensive training I sought without considering the needs of patient advocates like Jamie.

To improve my connections with patient advocates, I started tweeting with #BCSM (breast cancer social media) on Monday nights. I met dozens of advocates in person and attended conferences where I sat alongside them instead of with my scientist peers. I began to realize these interactions were unique – often, research scientists do not interact with patient advocates. And I could see how I was benefiting from the relationships I was building:

  • My research goals were more focused. I worked to ensure that my research goals aligned with the goals of the breast cancer community as a whole. Instead of simply killing cells in a petri dish, I started thinking of how my experiments could someday result in treatments for metastatic disease, or more tolerable treatment regimens. I also applied for grants that required a patient advocate mentor, and thanks to my existing relationships, I was able to clarify my message even before I started writing my aims page.
  • My science communication improved. In order to explain scientific findings in 280 characters on Twitter, I learned how to be more succinct in my language. While at conferences with patient advocates, I explained breast cancer and answered complicated questions in a way that was easier to understand. Science communication is critical for grant writing, writing journal articles, establishing cross-disciplinary collaborations, and improving public perception of science. Who better to practice this communication with than the people I was trying to help?
  • My developed sense of purpose helped combat my depression. It is estimated that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows suffer from mental health problems including anxiety and depression at a rate that is six times that of the general population. Working with patient advocates invigorated my research with a sense of purpose and improved my day-to-day mental health as I worked toward helping people I knew and cared about.
  • My understanding of life after a cancer diagnosis evolved. I began to understand cancer from multiple angles instead of just from a basic research perspective. Besides removing the tumor or slowing progression, I learned about the long-term consequences of cancer treatments including physical side effects and impacts on mental health. As we improve treatments for cancer, we have more and more survivors living beyond their diagnosis who have different needs than the general population.
  • My appreciation of the complexities of cancer inspired a career transition. An added layer of complexity in cancer care is the health care system itself, from doctors’ visits to health insurance co-pays and claim submissions. In 2018, I audited a Health Politics and Policy course at Georgetown and realized that the U.S. health care system may be as complex as cancer itself. I have decided to pivot my career to ultimately improve the lives of cancer patients through improving science and health policy.

Though I am shifting away from research in my daily work, I continue to encourage cancer research scientists to work directly with patient advocates. This spring, I was selected to be an Elevate Ambassador thorough the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship’s Elevating Survivorship Initiative. My mission is to improve relationships around survivorship care in my community of basic research scientists. I am building a program to facilitate relationships between patient advocates and basic research graduate students and postdocs, because I believe that starting early will impact trainees’ lives for years to come. We are piloting the program at Georgetown this summer and hope to have a tool kit available in the coming months so trainees at other institutions can build these relationships as well.

Hillary Stires received her PhD in endocrinology and animal biosciences from Rutgers University in 2016 and continued to study the role of hormones in breast cancer as a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center for the next three years. She recently began a career in health policy and is currently a Fellow of FDA and Regulatory Policy at a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

Stires is an associate member of the AACR. We welcome guest posts from our associate members, as well as members of constituent groups such as Minorities in Cancer Research and Women in Cancer Research. See our contributors’ guidelines for more information.