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Remembering Ellen Stovall, Cancer Survivor Advocate

By Otis W. Brawley, MD, FACP

Ellen Stovall, a long-time cancer survivor advocate, died of heart failure last week.  She was 69 years old.  As is the case these days, word of her death spread through email.  We at the American Cancer Society were saddened to hear of her death, but for me and for many others this one was extremely personal.

I first met Ellen more than 25 years ago when I was a young oncologist at the National Cancer Institute. She would become a good friend.  Over the years, she would encourage me.  She often gave me emotional and intellectual support especially when I took unpopular stances on issues.

Shortly after I first met Ellen she founded the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.  She and some other courageous survivors would demand that consumers be included in medical and scientific research decision-making and they would get a seat at the table.

In a world where people come and go, Ellen stayed pertinent for more than 25 years.  Ellen was disruptive.  She was quiet and polite, but effective. She was not a politician, but she was the consummate insider.

Ellen would eventually define and get us all to accept that a person is a cancer survivor as soon as they are diagnosed with cancer. She would help make cancer survivorship an academic discipline. She effectively pushed a national agenda for programs to study survivorship and programs to support survivors.

I knew Ellen was important to me and important in the development of my career, but as I talked to colleagues about Ellen, I found out how many others she influenced in the oncology space.  Every one of them told me how she made them feel special, empowered, and wiser. There are so many professionals of numerous disciplines who she influenced: a dozen or more of us at the ACS and even more at NCI, ASCO, AACR, NCCN, NBCC and a bunch of other organizations.

Ellen Stovall is a true hero, an example of how one person can make a difference and every person should try.   She was a three-time cancer survivor.  She died of cardiac complications caused by the radiation and chemotherapy she had received four decades ago. Ellen died of the cure.  Her death serves as a reminder of the importance of the very discipline she championed.  Even in dying Ellen teaches us lessons about survivorship.

Dr. Brawley is the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.