Just a little more than a week before the start of the 50th Annual Meeting of ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, Il, the news landed on my desk that Selma Schimmel, founder and CEO of Vital Options International and an outspoken activist, patient advocate, respected radio talk show host and author had died, aged 59, from malignant psoas syndrome or MPS, a rare and challenging cancer pain state that is often refractory to rational polymodal analgesic therapy, a complication of ovarian cancer for which she was being treated.
Cancer defined Selma's private and professional life. It was in response to her mother’s death from ovarian cancer and her own breast cancer diagnosis, at the age of 28, that she, in 1983, founded Vital Options. At that time, this organization was the nation's first and only non-profit support organization for young adults with cancer. Her vision, leadership, and guidance ultimately turned Vital Options into the leading international psychosocial cancer communication, support, and advocacy organization for cancer patients - and survivors - of all ages.
...For more than 30 years since founding Vital Options, Selma reached out to everyone touched by cancer in the United States and abroad...
Syndicated Talk Radio
Selma pioneered innovative approaches in using cutting edge technology to advocate, educate and communicate about cancer. So, it was no surprise that she, in 1996, created The Group Room, a nationally syndicated radio cancer talk show for cancer patients, their families, friends, and health care professionals.
The program, produced by Vital Options International and Premiere Radio Networks, Inc was designed to facilitate a global cancer dialogue. And that's what Selma did: her broadcast of information and hope provided psychosocial support to millions of radio listeners who would tune in - each Sunday for two hours - to listen to her program in which she interviewed countless cancers experts and key opinion leaders about various aspects of cancer, cancer research and (new) treatment options and asked survivors to share their story. In her live program Selma also invited listeners to engage directly with physicians and oncology experts and thought leaders.
In addition to her weekly Sunday show, Selma and her team produced live broadcasts from leading oncology conferences and interfaced with many major clinical institutions, government agencies, advocacy organizations, and the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.
Selma's program gained so much popularity that in 1999 Talkers Magazine named her one of the 100 most important and influential radio talk-show hosts in the United States.
Over the years Selma suffered several recurrences related to both breast and ovarian cancer. And while at times emotional, she became the voice of survivorship.
Reaching out: Europe
For more than 30 years since founding Vital Options, Selma reached out to everyone touched by cancer in the United States and abroad.
In February 2002, David Khayat, MD, PhD, head of the Department of Medical Oncology at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, in Paris, France, introduced me to Selma during the 12th International Congress on Anti-cancer Treatment (ICACT), in Paris, France. It was at this meeting that French cancer survivors were offered the unique opportunity to publicly discuss their own experience with fellow cancer survivors and a number of leading cancer specialists.
Later that year, in October 2002, we met again in Nice, France, at the meeting of the European Society of Medical Oncology - ESMO. During this meeting Selma - always busy - would have a live remote broadcast to the United States and coordinate a local, French, broadcast as part of her organization's European expansion to the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France.
In the years that followed I had the privilege of working with Selma, exploring new options to grow her European network. In the summer of 2003, in addition to her expanding series of European radio programs, we looked at options - in collaboration with the business development team at of Business News Radio (BNR) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands - to launch a weekly, two hour, Dutch program about cancer. This program would be modelled after Selma's own programs. A number of initial interviews - in Dutch - as well as episodes of The Cancer NewsMinute®, short, one-minute, news update reporting information about all aspects of cancer, were recorded later that year at the XII European Cancer Conference - ECCO, in Copenhagen, Denmark.
I've always admired Selma's total dedication, her passion, her zeal and 'drive' for the 'cause'. After moving to North America in 2004 our professional lives separated, but we remained friends. Over the years we discussed many opportunities and initiatives designed to improve and professionalize advocacy, communication and education for cancer patients as well as inititatives to help healthcare professionals and others involved in the management and care of patients with cancer.
Selma was always supporting and encouraging. As a true mentor she inspired and influenced. I vividly recall a meeting with Selma in late 2005 in which she pushed really hard to help me make a decision which ultimately resulted in the development of Onco'Zine - The International Oncology Network. Her ideas greatly influenced my direction and approach.
Selma always looked for the best options to communicate her message in the best way possible and in 2008, The Group Room transitioned to a video format. As part of her work, she filmed interviews at every major oncology conference in the world. More recently, in 2011, she launched her Living with Cancer series.
I was looking forward to meeting Selma again, next week, in Chicago, Il, during the ASCO meeting. But now, together with many friends and colleagues in the oncology community, we will take time to remember her and her unique legacy!
Selma, thank you for your encouragement and your relentless energy in designing and pioneering so many unique programs to help cancer patients, their families, friends, and health care professionals. Your passionate voice and vision in helping - educating - patients understand their clinical options and translating new research into hope and possibilities will be greatly missed!
Photo: Selma Ruth Schimmel Courtesy: Vital Options International
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