Local center part of Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Summit

Skip Hewitt was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2004 and beat it after five months of treatment. In 2009 he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which he successfully fought, only to fall ill with stage 3 lymphoma two years later, which was also treated. Then his bladder cancer returned in 2012.

“I tell people I cried when I got diagnosed with leukemia, and I cried when I got diagnosed with bladder cancer, but when I got diagnosed with lymphoma, I was just plain pissed off. I said, this has got to stop, I’ve had enough,” he said.

Hewitt was one of many cancer patients and survivors who told their stories at the Cancer Moonshot Summit hosted by the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes at the Greenstar Space in Ithaca, June 29. More than 270 local summits were held across the country, along with a national event led by Vice President Joe Biden at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Weill Cornell Medicine hosted a New York City Regional Summit in Manhattan.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama put Biden in charge of the Cancer Moonshot, an effort to find a cure for cancer by doubling the rate of progress toward a cure – to make a decade of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care in five years.

In Ithaca, patients and survivors spoke of their appreciation for the Cancer Resource Center (CRC), which has assisted Tompkins County residents and others affected by cancer since 1994. CRC offers regular support, networking groups and one-to-one assistance.

“CRC’s support groups are like none other that I’ve been to,” said Donna Berich, who has battled skin cancer for 30 years and basal cell carcinoma disorder for the last five years. “They not only take care the physical [issues], they also take care of the mental [ones].”

Part of that support comes from a unique CRC-Cornell partnership.

In 2012, Cornell trainees in the colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Engineering were asked by CRC staff to hold monthly seminars in lay language on cancer research topics for cancer patients and survivors.

“Cancer is so scary to all of us when we are first diagnosed, and if we know what to expect it’s somehow less scary,” said Bob Riter, CRC executive director.

The Cornell-CRC program expanded in 2015 through a grant from Engaged Cornell and is now part of the academic curriculum. The program offers a “Social Issues in Community Engagement for Cancer Scientists” weekend workshop and science communication courses that include regular patient-researcher seminars.

“This is the only program like it in the country where we connect researchers in training and those of us with cancer,” said Riter.

The partnership benefits students and community members, added Bob Weiss, professor of molecular genetics in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. Students “study cancer research in the laboratory, but typically at the level of cells and molecules. Through the partnership students have been exposed to the patient perspective, and they’ve been inspired,” Weiss said. Community members learn about fundamentals of cancer biology and current research, he added.

“It’s enlightening for me to see the face of cancer because CRC reminds me why I am here, why I need to understand cancer, why I need to solve it,” said Darshil Patel, a graduate student in Weiss’ lab, who has presented on cancer topics at the center. “Before coming here I thought cancer is a big issue, we need to solve it, but now I know why, now I see the patient, I see the issues,” he added.

Many patients also mentioned traveling for free on Cornell’s campus-to-campus bus to visit doctors at Weill Cornell Medicine or Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; the bus service is another partnership between the CRC and Cornell.

“We need to continue the research, but we also need to think about the people involved,” including patients and caretakers, said Greg Fry, a speaker at the event who lost both his parents to cancer. 

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Melissa Osgood