Baby Steps

It’s easy to point out problems.  At least it is for me.  So, a few years back when I learned that the Susan G. Komen organization used very little of its large national budget on breast cancer research, I took many opportunities to point it out.

Those of us living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) were enraged when we learned that a tiny fraction of Komen research dollars went toward research that might help people like us live longer.  We ranted.  We raved.  We were furious.

There are many social media posts and blogs about this topic.  This post takes a different slant.  Mine is about working towards a better outcome.  It’s about putting anger aside and making progress together.

When I attended the MBC Living Beyond Breast Cancer Symposium, a fabulous group of women took part in their Hear My Voice program, a seminar intended to help those with MBC make a difference.  One of the participants, Beth Caldwell, organized a Die-In with others at the conference and later co-founded MetUp, an MBC advocacy group.  Beth, in her blog “The Cult of the Perfect Motherhood” had much to say about Komen and how the organization had been failing in its mission to end breast cancer.  Many others living with MBC wrote similarly themed pieces, including me.

Image may contain: 4 people, including Sandra Spivey, people smiling

We felt like we were fighting for our lives while Komen was selling the breast cancer experience as pink ribbons and tu-tus.  It was all about the brave women (yes, the entire emphasis was on women, even though men get breast cancer too), who “fought valiantly for their lives” for a few months, then were able to put the disease behind them only to celebrate their victories each year at their local Race for the Cure.

When I agreed to speak at the local Race in 2016, I had to reconcile my distaste for the past actions of the organization with leveraging a platform to educate the community about metastatic breast cancer and support my MBC sisters and brothers.  At the Race wrap-up meeting, when everyone was congratulating themselves on a great event, I spoke up.  I pointed out that those living with MBC were upset with Komen and that’s why they stayed away from such events.  I blurted out that there was little for those living with and dying of metastatic breast cancer at the Race, and that it was unacceptable.  As the other meeting members eyes grew larger and larger, my friend and long-time Komen leader Sandy Finestone supported my views and said that the local affiliate and national Komen needed to do something about it.

She was right.

Since then, Komen has a new CEO, Paula Schneider, and a renewed dedication to slashing deaths from breast cancer by 50% by 2026.  The large ship, the USS Komen, is in the midst of changing its course.  It’s not a speedboat and isn’t able to make a sharp U-turn, but it is moving and changing.  For the better.

The Los Angeles Komen affiliate started making changes early on.  For the past six years, they have been hosting conferences to bring the local MBC community together and provide education, support and hope.  I wanted my local affiliate to do the same.

Two years ago, I attended an evening session sponsored by Komen Orange County held at the University of California Irvine.  UCI breast cancer researcher Devon Lawson, Ph.D., and others spoke.  I ended up participating in the conversation so much that Komen Executive Director Lisa Wolter suggested I speak at next year’s meeting.  And I did.

Since then, I’ve been tapped to act as Patient Advocate on UCI’s Breast Disease Oriented Team.  At the monthly meetings, I bring the patient perspective to topics the clinical and bench researchers discuss.  I don’t think they realized the level at which I participate in the discussion.  My association with the local Komen affiliate has made that possible.

In early 2018 OC Komen’s Director of Mission Programs, Ambrocia Lopez, asked me to help get a MBC conference off the ground in Orange County.  I enthusiastically agreed.  More about that in a future blog.

For this year’s race, I was interviewed by the Denise Dador, the health reporter at Los Angeles ABC 7 TV where I was able to talk about the importance of research and the plight of those living with metastatic breast cancer.  I was able to have my voice heard due to my work with the local Komen affiliate.

I believe that by me and others working with the Komen organization we will make important changes.  We will help set the stage for the metastatic breast cancer community and perhaps put breast cancer to bed for good.  So far, so good.


An Open Letter to Breast Cancer Researchers: Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Dear Scientific Researcher,

What you do is extremely important and provides hope to those like me living with metastatic breast cancer.  The projects you choose, and the collaborations and advances you make, can be vital to ending the set of diseases known as breast cancer, thereby saving thousands of lives in the future.

I have met many of you on various review panels and have sat in the room with you, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of proposed breast cancer studies.  You bring in scientific viewpoints; I bring in the views of the community, particularly the views of the patient advocate.  Sometimes you get wrapped up in the elegance of a specific study and shift uneasily in your seats when I ask:  “So how does this study help us save lives or prevent the disease from happening in the first place?”

I realize how difficult it is to obtain funding for your labs and that some of you have had to dismiss some talented members of your teams due to lack of funding.  I have raised over $50,000 for breast cancer research and have lobbied dozens of times on Capitol Hill to secure your research dollars.   I feel your pain.

I have attended far too many funerals cloaked in pink ribbons.  Inspiring women, creative women, and yes, demanding women and men have suffered and died at the hands of this disease.  Each day, those who call themselves survivors, live with dark clouds over their heads housing thunderbolts of lingering fears that recurrence and death is in the forecast.

When I read funding proposals, it makes me aware how little you really know about curing breast cancer in humans.  You don’t know how many breast cancers start, how to accurately detect breast cancers, why mutations happen, why the immune system ignores these aberrant cells, how cancer cells can survive throughout the body and colonize in new locations, or how some cancer cells resist treatment.  Sure, you know some, but not enough.

We have spent billions of dollars on breast cancer research, from both the public and private sectors.  You have written thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject.  You have attended and presented at hundreds of breast cancer symposia, costing millions of dollars and thousands of hours.

Securing study funding, publishing papers and presenting findings seems to have become an end unto itself for some of you.  Finding real cures for real people appears to have been lost in the shuffle.

You study signaling pathways that end up worthless as targets for treatments due to the body’s ability to create redundant systems.  You study different dose levels of the same thirty-year-old chemotherapy treatments on lab mice and proudly boast that the new combination extends life a few months.  You repeat unsuccessful research studies because prior scientists failed to produce their findings.  You plunge into nanoparticle technology to find the right shape to fit into cell receptors in order to develop a toxic payload into cancer cells, and discover the keys can’t find the locks.  You study the neighborhood around cancer and try to figure out if that’s what fosters new cancer formation.  You spend years discovering new cellular mechanisms, write about them, and then look for your next project.

All of this:  Yet people keep dying.  At least one has died from breast cancer as you read this letter.

But are you building stairways to nowhere?

What happens after you publish your findings?  When you finish a project what happens next?  How are your results applied to get us any closer to actual treatments or prevention?  How do you hold yourselves accountable to clinicians, patients and the general public?  How can you make it less about “publish or perish” and more about saving lives?  How can you make sure you ask the right questions before starting any new project instead of building a stairway leading to nowhere?

Are you satisfied with your own progress?  How would you feel if someone undergoing treatment looks over your shoulder as you work?  Would you personally go to your friends and family, asking them to donate to the work you are doing right now?  If your own loved-one was diagnosed with breast cancer, what steps would you take to make sure they would not perish from the disease?

These are important things to think about.  I know you work hard.  I work hard at staying alive.  Both jobs are difficult.

What I’m asking you to do is to consider your role in the fight to end breast cancer.  Are you winning or losing?  What can you personally do to ask the right research questions that are not redundant or merely interesting, but are important to finally putting an end to breast cancer?  How can you make sure that your research makes a real difference and foster translation into the clinic?

I’m fighting the battle every day.  Please do what you can to fight with me.  Put an end to building stairways to nowhere.


Sandra Spivey

Starting out

Since my retirement as a human resource professional in 2008, my life has been filled with cats and cancer. I have been lucky enough to be asked to mentor several people I’ve worked with in the past on career advice and sticky people issues. That has helped keep my mind active.

My grown daughter, Allison, and her tuxedo cat, Bickley, moved back home soon after I retired. Allison and I soon started volunteering at the local animal shelter, cleaning cat cages and playing with cats every Saturday morning.  We adopted cat #2, Tiny Baby Sweetheart Honey Cupcake Sugar Princess Yummy Gumdrop, who proved to be everything but Tiny. Soon after that, we decided to adopt our son’s three-legged cat, Buddy (who my husband Bill now calls Zoom-Zoom due to her adept running skills).  So our lives are filled with floating fur and hair balls. 

In 1995, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and expected to complete treatment and be done with it, as happened to my mom in 1980. My cancer had other ideas and infested my bones in 1998 at age 45. I read where 10% of those with the same disease lived past 3 years. I decided to sign up for that group and am happy to say that my membership application was accepted. 

I’ve had several cancer adventures, from 3 weeks in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant to sitting next to cancer researchers determining the strengths and weaknesses of various breast cancer research proposals.  

So my life is now filled with cats and cancer. The cats provide therapeutic value in dealing with cancer. It’s the perfect mix for a retiree like me.