Compassion Drives Emma Shtivelman’s Work with Cancer Patients

Emma Shtivelman, PhD

I always say that Emma was an angel that appeared in my life. Rapidly, I saw that her advice was professional and that her insights matched the latest publications, so I have developed very strong trust in her… Moreover, what I appreciate the most about Emma is her human goodness and empathy. I have never felt I was just a case for her. She is really dedicated to the patient. — Marilou Gougeon

Emma is really up and up on the latest and newest available treatments… On top of that, you can tell that she truly cares…There is no money in the world that can buy that sort of support. It is the ultimate second opinion. — Phil Kauffman

To many of the patients whom she personally helps to make treatment decisions in the fight of their lives, chief scientist Emma Shtivelman, PhD, represents the heart, soul, and brain of Cancer Commons.

A typical day for Emma involves corresponding with up to 20 users of the free Cancer Commons service, empowering them to take charge of their care. In her six years at the organization, she has helped many hundreds of patients and caregivers find the answers to their questions about cutting-edge drugs, clinical trials, and more.

“I try to stay updated on new developments for all types of cancer,” Emma says. “No two patients are exactly the same, but the research I do for one patient can help inform the guidance I give to others.” Cancer Commons learns from every patient’s story in order to help similar patients find the trials, treatments, and answers they need to change the outcome of their disease.

Slight in stature and introverted, Emma is extremely humble about her importance in patients’ lives. “I feel like I don’t deserve it [praise] most of the time,” she says. Still, people who receive Emma’s guidance are impressed not only by her expertise, but also her empathy and warmth.

“Emma’s approach truly embodies our patient-centered mission,” says executive director Erika Vial Monteverdi. “Every day, she helps patients tap into the world’s collective cancer knowledge so they can make informed decisions for themselves.”

Emma’s Path

Emma never expected to work directly with cancer patients. From the age of 15 or 16, she knew she wanted to study cancer, but unlike her ob-gyn father, who often dealt with the disease, she was more interested in its molecular underpinnings, wondering what are the genetic changes and pathways that cause cancer to develop and metastasize.

After emigrating from the Soviet Union to Israel at the age of 25, Emma earned her PhD in molecular biology from the Weizmann Institute of Science. There, while studying leukemia, she led research that resulted in the first demonstration of a cancer-causing gene product arising from a type of mutation known as chromosomal translocation.

Emma went on to study molecular aspects of cancer at U.C. San Francisco and the drug-development companies Systemix and BioNovo. “I never really thought about the patient’s perspective until my last few years doing lab work at a clinical-stage company,” she says. “I realized it could be nice to work more on the clinical side.”

Emma stumbled upon Cancer Commons’ website in 2012, and was drawn to its patient-focused message. Soon, she became the organization’s go-to resource for patients struggling to navigate the complex world of cancer treatment. This service grew in popularity, eventually reaching people from more than 45 countries. Now, Emma shares the work with other dedicated scientists on the Cancer Commons team.

Driven by Compassion

Emma and her Cancer Commons colleagues face many challenges. It is painful for her to learn that a patient’s cancer has progressed or that he or she has passed away. It can also be difficult to help patients understand that alternative medicine may not be appropriate to replace standard clinical care and complementary services. And as demand for her guidance grows, Emma often finds herself writing to patients in the evenings and on weekends.

What keeps her going? “Compassion,” she says. And the rewards are plentiful: “It’s very satisfying when a patient tells me they spoke with their doctor about our correspondence, and even better when they enroll in a clinical trial we discussed and have a good response,” Emma says. “I love it when people are active in their care, educate themselves, and are open to new possibilities, such as those who engage in patient forums and run their ideas by me.”

Given her dedication, it’s no surprise that Emma has become particularly close to a number of people through Cancer Commons. She has become good friends with some patients and caregivers, who send her photos of their kids and spouses. She has even met a few in person.

In her spare time, Emma likes to be with her three little granddaughters, or do some swimming or hiking. She says that her experience as a mother and grandmother has taught her patience that informs her work at Cancer Commons.

“Emma is not one to seek the spotlight,” says Cancer Commons founder Marty Tenenbaum, PhD. “But the impact she’s had for patients and caregivers over the years is profound and far-reaching. I can’t overstate how lucky we are to work with her every day.”