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Massey invites Cancer Champions to get a closer look at community-led research

Oct 03, 2022

Cancer Champions Article

The community-to-bench model of research reached a new level at VCU Massey Cancer Center on September 28 and October 1, 2022, as members of the Cancer Champions program visited a laboratory to see the work in action as part of the new Lab Open House series.

“This was great,” said Bennie Gates following the tour. “Being a cancer survivor, having a lot of cancer in my family and then a lot of cancer in my community with people in church and friends. There’s cancer everywhere. It’s why I do what I do.”

Gates is one of more than 60 Cancer Champions across Massey’s catchment area in southern, eastern and central Virginia. The program, rooted in earlier community-engaged research efforts, enables survivors and caregivers to work alongside researchers. It is part of Massey’s community engagement in research (CEnR) initiative.

“The Cancer Champions program at Massey Cancer Center is dedicated to creating the spaces for community members and researchers to come together, to build relationships and partner,” explained Maria Thomson, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program and director of the Cancer Champions program at Massey, as well as associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine.

Through the program, each Cancer Champion:

  1. Works in partnership with Massey researchers and educators to align research and training with community needs.
  2. Helps to share cancer and research information in local communities, including providing feedback to help researchers communicate their science to the community.
  3. Makes a difference through advocacy and cancer awareness.

The group’s discussions include the importance of clinical trial enrollment, diversity in research and early detection through regular screenings.

“The goal is to infuse the work at Massey with community intelligence so that clinical, research and education efforts are informed and aligned with community priorities and needs,” explained Thomson.

Additionally, Thomson hopes opportunities to have dialogue with researchers allow the Cancer Champions to increase their understanding of how their involvement impacts the work at Massey.  

Cancer Champions news article image

“The Lab Open House series invites the community into the very spaces where discoveries are happening, opening up these spaces for new conversation and exchange of ideas, from community to bench,” said Thomson.

During the first round of Lab Open Houses on September 28 and October 1, Cancer Champions learned about research conducted by Paula Bos, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Biology research program at Massey and assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the VCU School of Medicine; L. Ashley Cowart, Ph.D., director of the VCU Lipidomics/ Metabolomics Shared Resource Core (VLMC), member of the Cancer Cell Signaling research program, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the VCU School of Medicine and research health scientist at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center; and Theresa Swift-Scanlan, Ph.D., RN, the Ellen Fontaine Winston Distinguished Professor and director of Biobehavioral Laboratory Services in the VCU School of Nursing.

Cowart, who studies a specific class of lipids known as sphingolipids and the role that they play in obesity-related diseases, including cancer, gave the Cancer Champions a tour of her lab following the September 28 presentations.

The food-cancer connection is one that prompted several questions from Cancer Champions, who said they were interested in learning more about it at an upcoming speaker event.

From his time at the Lab Open House, Gates took away a better idea of how Massey members conduct their research. Despite prior science exposure, the opportunity to speak to Cowart opened his eyes.

“When I first walked into labs like this 30 years ago, there wasn’t an open lab concept,” Gates recalled. “Everyone had their own spot. There wasn’t as much sharing and talking among the researchers. This was new to me.”

Gates is grateful Massey opened its doors to his group. He would encourage other survivors and caregivers to consider the Cancer Champions program.

“If they care about their community, yes. Yes, become a Cancer Champion,” said Gates about why others should get involved. “Everyone knows someone with cancer.”

Massey has several more Lab Open Houses planned in the coming weeks.

Anyone interested in learning more about the series or becoming a Cancer Champion can contact

Written by: Amy Lacey

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