Patient advocates are helping researchers break new ground in breast cancer research today by providing patient perspectives and sharing personal experiences that will help advance science and save lives. Komen Scholar alum and Advocates in Science member Patty Spears is at the forefront of this exciting work that is rapidly changing the treatment landscape for patients with breast cancer.
Patty is receiving the 2023 Research Advocacy Champion Award for her dedicated scientific and advocacy leadership, and ensuring the patient voice is incorporated in the development of clinical trials. Patty is a scientific research manager and patient advocate at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she also leads the UNC Lineberger Patient Advocates for Research Council and the National Cancer Institute-funded UNC Breast Specialized Programs of Research Excellence advocates.
Originally a scientist by trade, Patty has been involved with Komen on both the community side and the research side. On top of her 34 years of bench work doing basic research and studying microbial diseases, she also has extensive experience as a community volunteer with Komen, and later, as one of Komen’s first Advocates in Science.
“I always loved Komen because it really brought those two sides together and it wasn’t either/or, it was everything,” Patty says.
Finding Her Passion
For Patty, research advocacy was an unexpected career path after she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 20 years ago. Today, she is a survivor of both breast and liver cancer and has participated in two clinical trials. With members of her own family also diagnosed with six cancers and participating in six clinical trials, Patty says, “I feel like I come with a lot of experience.”
When she first learned she had breast cancer, Patty began searching for an online support group and met a woman who was volunteering at a local Komen race. As she became involved in her local community, Patty found more opportunities to reach out to others and make new connections.
When someone in her local group asked for volunteers to present at an upcoming science meeting, no one raised their hand, but Patty said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”
Her presentation, which discussed environmental impacts on breast cancer risk, was a success with attendees, and she was asked to write her findings up in a formal paper. This became Patty’s first journal publication as a cancer patient advocate.
Still a scientist by profession, Patty became more passionate about patient advocacy. This led her to join several national advocacy organizations, as well as UNC Lineberger’s Patient Advocates for Research Council, which ultimately led her to a new career path at UNC.
“I was hired at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center as a scientific research manager and a patient advocate because I already managed their Patient Advocates for Research Council,” she says. “I’ve been involved at UNC since 2017, building that program.”
Facilitating Meaningful Collaboration
Today, Patty is an active voice in many of UNC Lineberger’s scientific research programs, as she collaborates with colleagues, mentors new patient advocates, and facilitates ongoing conversations between researchers and the external community.
She says the most fulfilling part of her job is working collaboratively with the diverse team at UNC Lineberger, which includes researchers, advocates, clinical staff, tech groups and many others.
“I like the collaborative nature of what my job allows me to do,” Patty says. “I love being on a call with a surgeon, a senior researcher, a basic researcher, my community of patient advocates and clinical staff, all editing and contributing language to a summary for a study together. That’s just collaboration on the next level.”
Coming Full Circle with Komen
Patty says that one of the most meaningful outcomes of her relationship with Komen has been the friendships she has developed over the years with other advocates.
“I think the friendships that you make within Komen are like no other,” she says. “In advocacy, without them, I wouldn’t be where I am. I wouldn’t be working at Lineberger at a job that I love.”
Patty says that Komen’s Research Advocacy Champion Award is more meaningful to her than other awards that she has received in the past, because it comes from an organization that has been with her from the very start of her patient advocacy for breast cancer.
“I feel like this award means a whole lot more because it’s more personal than the other ones, and that’s why this is an amazing award to receive.”