|Spring 2010-Center Profile|
Crossroads salutes Sharon Spencer, M.D., professor of radiation oncology and UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center senior scientist. Dr. Spencer specializes in the research and treatment of lung and head and neck cancers. A member of the Alabama Society of Radiation Oncology, the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology and the Radiological Society of North America, she has received numerous honors, including the 2005 Caregiver Award in the American Cancer Society’s Life Inspiration Awards. In 2008 she was named to the Ruby F. Meredith Outstanding Clinician in Radiation Oncology Endowed Chair.
Sharon Spencer, M.D., has become one of the Cancer Center’s most respected, skilled and dedicated physicians. But it almost didn’t happen. In fact, she had no interest in becoming a doctor—and no intention of remaining in Birmingham after she completed school.
Dr. Spencer grew up in the heart of Birmingham, one of six children belonging to Otis Spencer, Sr., who worked at American Cast Iron Pipe Company, and Annie Spencer, a stay-at-home mom. Dr. Spencer says it was actually one of her siblings who planned to enter the field of medicine.
“My sister Verneeda always wanted to be a doctor,” says Dr. Spencer. “I didn’t want to be a doctor, but I knew early on that I liked biology.” However, she does recall being fascinated by the medical environment when she would visit doctors as a child. “Medical care back then was very regimented, as far as what the doctors did and what the nurses did,” she says. “I was intrigued by that.”
Later, in high school, Dr. Spencer got involved with an organization that educated students about careers in the medical community. “That allowed me to see many different aspects of medicine and kept my interest alive,” she says.
Eventually, Dr. Spencer enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She minored in secondary education so that teaching chemistry could be a career option. But a summer spent working in one of UAB’s endocrinology labs piqued Dr. Spencer’s interest in the clinical side of medicine, and during her junior year, a professor suggested that she attend medical school. “That’s how the ball started to roll,” she says.
Deciding to Stay
Dr. Spencer enrolled in the UAB School of Medicine, where she received her medical degree and completed a residency and fellowship. Her introduction to radiation oncology came through a clinical rotation, providing her with the opportunity to explore a fast-growing field in cancer research and treatment.
“When I was first looking at the field, technology was just beginning to blossom,” she says. “For example, CT and later, MRI, scans were available for patients, but not all doctors had access to them. As these technologies were beginning to trickle into clinics, we faced the task of how to integrate these tools into the clinical practice of radiation oncology. We now have the capability to use these imaging tools to direct and guide radiation treatments for patients on a routine basis.”
While radiation oncology’s exciting scientific opportunities appealed to Dr. Spencer, the patient care aspect cemented her decision to specialize in the field. “It gave me close patient contact on a day-to-day basis, and that was what my personality needed,” she says. “I like to have an ongoing interaction with patients.”
After completing her training, Dr. Spencer was asked to join the UAB faculty full-time. “I’m really delighted that I stayed,” she says. “I’ve been here 22 years, and it’s amazing how radiation oncology has expanded. It’s a much bigger discipline and even more exciting than I ever could have imagined when I was starting out. I haven’t had any regrets.”
Today Dr. Spencer serves as clinical director of the Cancer Center’s Department of Radiation Oncology. She works closely with the department supervisors, administrators, nurses and other staff to oversee the clinic’s day-to-day operations. That collaborative potential is one of the things that Dr. Spencer loves about UAB.
“Everyone here is patient-centered,” she says. “Many of our patients have complicated cases, and it’s nice to have so much expertise available at your fingertips. I’m fortunate to work in that environment, and patients, especially those with cancer, are fortunate to have UAB.”
Dr. Spencer specializes in the research and treatment of lung and head and neck cancers, as well as some types of brain tumors. She is extremely active in research, working with national clinical trial groups such as the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group and serving on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network panel for head and neck cancer treatment guidelines. On a regional level, she and fellow radiation oncologist Ruby Meredith, M.D., Ph.D., collaborate with the Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and the University of Mississippi on a National Cancer Institute grant to bring the benefits of clinical trials to that area’s underserved population.
Beyond UAB, Dr. Spencer is involved with several organizations, including the American Cancer Society; the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama; the Children’s Network for Cancer, a grassroots group that presents programs about cancer and survivorship in small community settings; her local church; and Magic City Links, a service and cultural organization that helps women make a positive impact in their communities.
Dr. Spencer also enjoys reading and music. She is particularly attracted to religious study and even takes classes at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School when her schedule allows. She also travels and spends time with her friends and family, including six nieces and nephews. “Whatever I do involves interacting with people,” she says.
Dr. Spencer admits that her clinical and research responsibilities do not give her much free time. “I’m busy from the minute I step in the door until the minute I leave. But it’s interesting work from start to finish.”
She says she finds her motivation to face the challenges of cancer research and treatment in sheer stubbornness. “The older I get, the more stubborn I become,” Dr. Spencer says. “When I was a resident, there was nothing we could do for lung cancer patients. We’ve made huge inroads compared to where we were. My stubborn attitude says I’m going to make these patients’ lives better somehow.
“I come in every day wanting to give my patients hope. There are survivors out there—more than 11 million. I want to know more about why these survived and countless others did not. I’m hopeful that before I retire, we will have better surveillance tools as well as treatments. I hope that we can prevent cancer for some and transform it into a manageable, chronic disease for others. I want to see that happen.”