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PhD in Health candidate Emily Drake awarded the 2023 Leon and Rose Zitner Prize

Posted by Josey Houle, Dal Heath freelance writer on July 26, 2023 in PhD in Health, News, Research
Emily Drake received the prize for her co-founding and development of #AYACSM (Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Societal Movement)
Emily Drake received the prize for her co-founding and development of #AYACSM (Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Societal Movement)

Killam Laureate, Healthy Populations Institute Scholar, BHCRI CRTP trainee and PhD in Health candidate Emily Drake (MA’10) is personally, professionally, and academically motivated by the prospect of building and nurturing community for young people with cancer.

Drake co-founded #AYACSM (Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Societal Movement) on Twitter in 2013 — it has since grown to become a global social media healthcare community. The movement’s digital community enables sharing and collaboration on citizen knowledge between AYA (adolescent and young adult) cancer advocacy community members that include patients, caregivers, non-profits, researchers, healthcare providers, major stakeholders, global cancer organizations, oncology conferences, and more.

“I am thrilled to receive the 2023 Leon and Rose Zitner prize as it allows me to shine a light on the AYA cancer population and their unique needs. While this award recognizes my efforts, it is also recognizing the efforts of our community and my co-founder, Billy Paymaster,” Drake says.

Drake explains that her grandparents taught her the importance of caring for and fostering community. She decided to work in oncology after her maternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in 2005.

“The heart of the #AYACSM community has always been to try to make things better for patients and their families. This chat is for advocates of this population, so it brings together people across the world who are passionately pursuing efforts to improve the lives of these young people,” Drake says.

7600 AYAs are diagnosed with cancer in Canada each year. As this oncology age group is underfunded and under-researched, AYAs with cancer are often referred to as “the forgotten generation”. Canada has one interdisciplinary AYA cancer clinic, located in the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

#AYACSM sets public, stakeholder community-generated research priorities, and sheds light on social justice issues affecting young people with cancer and their families. Over the past nine years, Drake has organized and hosted approximately 100 monthly discussions with various guest moderators through the #AYACSM tweet chat.

“The focus of our efforts has always been to get resources and science into the hands of patients and families. Speaking about and to young adults in a way that young adults speak has always been how we’ve been most effective,” Drake says.

#AYACSM has had active participation from various global cancer organizations, such as the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC), and has been cited at nearly every major global cancer conference. #AYACSM tweets have been shared over 100,000 times in over 44 countries. Beyond Twitter, #AYACSM has boomed organically across various social media channels.

Through #AYACSM, Drake connected with Dani Taylor, a young adult colorectal cancer survivor and social worker with expertise in oncology and palliative care. They’ve since formed a strong working relationship —Taylor is a patient and community partner on Drake’s dissertation studies. Drake and Taylor recently collaborated to collect qualitative data from #AYACSM’s April 2023 chat for Drake’s second dissertation study.

“After nearly a decade of fostering this community, it was an exciting opportunity to pursue through my doctoral program of research,” Drake says.

Drake hopes to graduate from the PhD in Health program next year. Drake is supervised by Dr. Lori Weeks. She insists that Dr. Weeks’ “unwavering support” has been instrumental to her success, both in her doctoral program and young adult cancer advocacy work.

As she reflects upon #AYACSM’s monumental development, Drake is grateful and excited for the support that the movement has garnered.

“One of the greatest honours of my life is getting to do this work in oncology. My proudest moments with #AYACSM are when people have said that it has made a direct impact on their lives, through allowing them to connect with someone else who has their same type of cancer, or for healthcare providers, having a place where they can connect with others who understand the challenges of working in oncology,” Drake says.

The Leon and Rose Zitner Prize

The Faculty of Health’s Leon and Rose Zitner Prize recognizes a Dalhousie student who has made exceptional impacts in the area of health, through community engagement and mobilization of citizen knowledge.