When Connie Szczepanek, our new chair of the SWOG oncology research professionals (ORP) committee, found out she’d be in a Front Line blog, she laughed. “Our committee is the front line,” she said.

And she’s right. Oncology nurses and clinical research coordinators – still occasionally referred to by the old moniker of clinical research associates or CRAs – are the linchpin in cancer clinical trials. They’re the bridge between physicians and patients, discussing trials with patients, answering their questions, and aiding them through the informed consent process. At the same time, ORPs do all the back-end work of managing trials at our sites – ensuring protocols are implemented properly, collecting patient data, processing and submitting specimens, communicating with institutional review boards, and much, much more.
“Nothing we do is simple,” says Szczepanek, RN, BSN, CCRP, the director of the Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan. “Clinical research is a complex specialty, which involves operations and patient support. We’re the problem solvers and natural navigators. We’re also the constant, the one thread, that runs through the patient’s journey on a clinical trial.”
Szczepanek just took over as chair of our ORP committee from Keisha Humphries, who did a stellar job of leading our substantial 51-member committee. At SWOG Cancer Research Network, we have a whopping 8,000 associate members – not just oncology nurses and clinical research coordinators, but site staff working in the areas of pharmacy, administration, regulatory affairs, laboratory work, and more.
At SWOG, Szczepanek wants to raise the profile of these front-line site staff. She plans to make those members more active across our group, including helping to execute our new strategic plan, an effort led by SWOG Deputy Chair Dr. Primo “Lucky” Lara.
I wholly endorse her vision. With the growth in clinical trials, the research nurse specialty is booming, with the American Nursing Association, the Association for Clinical Research Professionals, and the Society for Clinical Research Professionals now offering certifications in the field. Our ORP staff are experienced professionals and more than warrant seats at the table. Our partners at The Hope Foundation for Cancer Research have done a wonderful job acknowledging their work, launching the Jeri and Norobu Oishi Symposium for ORPs in 2011 and last year creating a new ORP group meeting travel support program.
Szczepanek was a great choice for chair, given her long and exemplary history with SWOG. She became active in our group way back in 1994, with the start of our landmark Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT). She loved the creativity and challenge that came with executing a complex cancer trial. To thank the study participants, the PCPT team in West Michigan gave out fleece vests with the trial logo and hosted steak dinners for men enrolled in the trial. One night at a Grand Rapids hospital, the study team hosted an “End-of-Study-Biopsy” popcorn and movie night for study participants. They set up the popcorn machine near an elevator – and set off all the smoke alarms!
“We had guys standing in the parking lot while the fire department disabled the alarms,” she laughs. “We tried so many creative things with PCPT. That’s how I fell in love with SWOG. We also have such a great network of colleagues. I love our meetings, where you get to see and work with all these committed people. Everyone cares – and cares hard.”
Connie, welcome to the leadership team. We can’t wait to see what additional accomplishments come out of ORP.