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2023 in review: The year’s top stories from Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center

Dec 21, 2023

2023 year in review

This year, VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center clinicians, researchers and staff once again dedicated their efforts to delivering innovative, patient-centered care informed by cutting-edge research and community conversations. Here are some of the top stories highlighting those efforts in 2023:

Massey achieves comprehensive status from the National Cancer Institute

VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center celebrated many accomplishments in 2023, but none greater than receiving Comprehensive Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in June. This highest level of recognition from the NCI places Massey among an elite group of cancer centers influencing a new standard of care through research, education and community engagement. According to Massey director Robert A. Winn, M.D., “We are truly the first of a new generation of community-focused cancer centers, where world-class science and research is informed by the people we serve, and accessible for all.”

Leaders from Virginia Commonwealth University and across the commonwealth came together to celebrate the comprehensive designation on Thursday, June 8. Celebrants included the donors whose generosity helped propel Massey to comprehensive status. In September, Massey changed its name to reflect the new designation.

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Athlete and mom of three embraces a new role: Cervical cancer survivor

Taryn Dwan doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The 39-year-old mom of three follows through on her goals — whether conquering a triathlon or running the half marathon she was training for when diagnosed with stage 3C cervical cancer in February 2021. That determination has helped Dwan through her treatment and as she looks ahead to her life beyond cancer.

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Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., honored as American Cancer Society’s Researcher of the Year

Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach and engagement and health disparities research at Massey, won the American Cancer Society’s 2022 Researcher of the Year Award for her remarkable advances in cancer research. A leading expert in health disparities research, Sheppard focuses on disparities within breast cancer outcomes and addressing those disparities by developing approaches to improve survivors’ quality of life or cancer care delivery, such as improving the communication taking place between clinicians and Black breast cancer patients.

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Massey leaves footprint as a worldwide leader in cancer research and care during AACR Annual Meeting in Orlando

Massey again left its mark as a worldwide leader in cancer care, research and education during the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2023 in Orlando on April 14-19. More than 30 representatives affiliated with Massey and VCU put their expertise and scientific discoveries on display over the course of the conference through panel sessions, informative presentations, Q&A seminars, poster abstracts and more.

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“Massey on the Move” mobile health vans help combat cancer in Virginia’s underserved communities

Massey deployed two mobile health units that provide critical cancer education and outreach to the public within traditionally underserved communities in central and southern Virginia. Artwork for the vans was designed by two Richmond-area street artists, Hamilton Glass and Sir James Thornhill.

Since their launch, the vans have reached nearly 1,000 people at events across the cancer center’s catchment area, and Massey’s Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) team has had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with Virginia residents to encourage healthy lifestyle practices and cancer screening.

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Melanoma 101: Screening and preventing skin cancer

We spoke with dermatologist Kimberly Salkey, M.D., to get the lowdown on skin cancer risk, screening and prevention – from top to bottom. Salkey’s advice covers sunscreen, self-examination, guidelines for skin cancer screening and tips for protective clothing.

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Real Cancer Talk: Navigating nurse care

At Massey, we understand how important it is to have open, honest conversations about cancer. Through this video series called Real Cancer Talk, Massey shares stories from the community and in our cancer center about aspects of cancer not widely discussed. In this video, Nurse Manager Ashlee Nickens talks about the beauty and importance of interacting with patients to the degree that nurses do every day.

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Conor Ashby - Remembering his dad by giving back to Massey

Conor Ashby was just 11 years old when he lost his father to lung cancer. Twenty-seven years after his father’s passing, Ashby’s experiences continue to motivate him to work toward a future without cancer to ensure no other family will have to face the fear or loss from a cancer diagnosis. He’s inspired by Massey’s vision for a future without cancer.

“Giving back was something my dad instilled in me and that I feel compelled to carry on,” Ashby said. He first got involved with Massey in 2013. “Supporting Massey was a no-brainer, given my family’s history with cancer,” he said. That history includes not only Ashby’s dad and mom, but also a cousin and uncle, who are cancer survivors and an aunt who lost her battle with lung cancer.

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“Innovation doesn’t happen in an empty space”: Massey researchers and students convene at Walter Lawrence Research Retreat

Massey’s Walter Lawrence Research Retreat welcomed a standing-room-only crowd for a day of scientific presentations from Massey faculty and student-presented poster sessions. Massey research members shared their latest findings, and presented investigator-initiated clinical trial concepts designed to address the specific needs of Massey’s catchment area and community.

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Massey statistician earns $1.7M grant to study long-term effects of neighborhood exposures and racial segregation on cancer risk

Breast, colorectal and lung cancers are significant public health burdens in the U.S., accounting for more than 688,000 newly-diagnosed cancers in 2023, with significant racial and ethnic disparities in disease incidence and mortality. While previous research has identified some links between the incidence of these cancers and certain immediate patient exposures around the time of diagnosis, long-term cancer risk in different populations has yet to be investigated through a cumulative assessment of multiple exposures over time.

David Wheeler, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey, was awarded a five-year, $1.7 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to address this gap in scientific understanding through the use of innovative statistical models and analysis.

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Mariza Daras named as chief of neuro-oncology

On September 1, Mariza Daras, M.D., became the new chief of the division of neuro-oncology at Massey and the Department of Neurology at VCU School of Medicine. Daras specializes in the care of patients with a diagnosis of a primary brain tumor, including glioblastoma, meningioma and low-grade glioma. She also treats patients with metastases that have spread to the brain or central nervous system from other areas of the body.

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Blocking proteins could pull the plug on power for colon tumors

Through study findings published in Cell Reports, a team of scientists discovered a previously unknown interaction between proteins that is responsible for supplying energy to tumor cells and could hold significant implications for the development of future treatments for colon cancer. “This study is really exciting because we may be able to use these findings to inform the development of an entirely new cancer drug right here at Massey,” said study author and Massey researcher Can Senkal, Ph.D.

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Forging a path to healthcare transformation: Virginia DMAS and Massey seek partnership opportunities

On Monday, Sept. 25, leadership from the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services and the VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center met to create a transformative partnership. The group discussed strategies to dispel misconceptions surrounding clinical trials, a commitment to bridge the gap between faith and science within the community and, most significantly, the development of targeted approaches to provide care to the most at-risk residents of Virginia.

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Massey endowed professors and chairs celebrated for their impact in the fight against cancer

On Oct. 5, Virginia Commonwealth University donors, researchers and faculty from across its many colleges and centers came together to celebrate the philanthropic generosity that has created hundreds of endowed professorships and chairs at the university to address critical health challenges, including the fight against cancer.

Honorees at the 2023 Investiture Celebration dinner at the Altria Theater in Richmond included 16 Massey researchers and physician-scientists who have been recently appointed to endowed professorship or chair positions. Many of the generous donors, whose philanthropic support funded or supported the endowed positions, were there to celebrate alongside the newly invested faculty members and researchers.

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‘The Healing Space’ uses technology to create a place of respite for patients, families and staff

A newly-opened space in VCU Health’s Adult Outpatient Pavilion offers an immersive, calming experience for patients, caregivers and staff. The Healing Space, a unique room featuring a 9-by-16-foot curved LED display wall, 13 hidden speakers and customizable lighting, is offered through Massey’s Integrative Health department.

The room is the brainchild of Massey board members and volunteer leaders Terrell Harrigan, Becky Massey and Shelly Arthur. The team envisioned the space as a place for individuals to find peace in a busy and stressful environment, and they hope the space will also be used for gatherings like support group meetings, yoga and meditation classes.

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Massey organizes first-ever national conference on cancer catchment area data analytics

Massey hosted the inaugural Catchment Area Data Conference (CADC) – Beyond Definition at the Richmond Marriott on Dec. 7-9. This first-of-its-kind national conference served as a transformative event for catchment area data analytics, bringing together the brightest and most passionate scientific minds to discuss and share best practices in cancer health data collection, handling, dissemination and utilization, while also exploring policies and methodologies to advance cancer center catchment area analytics.

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Compiled by: Annie Harris

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