Brittany Avin McKelvey noticed something was wrong when she had trouble yelling plays to her teammates during middle school basketball games. Eventually, she could not raise her voice so friends could hear her in the school cafeteria.
Her doctor told her to rest her voice.
When her voice didn’t return after months of rest, an endoscopy revealed that her left vocal cord was paralyzed. Doctors told McKelvey and her parents the paralysis sometimes happens because of bronchitis, laryngitis or allergies. It’s probably temporary, they said, but a scan was ordered to rule out anything serious.
The scan showed a tumor sitting on the nerve feeding her vocal cord. The diagnosis — thyroid cancer at age 13.
“It was completely unexpected,” says McKelvey, who had surgery to remove the thyroid and approximately 30 lymph nodes. Then, she underwent radiation treatment that required her isolation.
“Because I went through that at such a formative time in my life, cancer became a big part of my identity,” she remembers.
While McKelvey’s now cancer-free (and has a voice thanks to an implant), she continues to battle the disease — only in a different way than when she was 13.
McKelvey is the director of regulatory affairs for Friends of Cancer Research. This Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization brings together partners in the health care sector to power advances in science, policy and regulation that speed lifesaving treatments for patients with cancer.
She is also a member of the National Cancer Institute’s federal advisory committee, the Council of Research Advocates, which she’ll serve until 2026.
“Even prior to my cancer diagnosis, I knew I wanted to go into science,” she says. “After my diagnosis, I knew I wanted to specifically go into research and study cancer.”
But as an undergraduate majoring in genetics and biochemistry, McKelvey studied a life threatening fungal pathogen for people with compromised immune systems, in the Eukaryotic Pathogens Innovation Center (EPIC) under Kerry Smith and Cheryl Ingram-Smith.
“At Clemson, it was less important to me to work on a specific research topic and more important to find a good mentor who could help develop my skills,” says McKelvey, who went on to conduct thyroid cancer research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics.
After her Ph.D., McKelvey shifted toward science policy due in part to her minor in science and technology in society at Clemson and in part to John Hopkins’ proximity to D.C., which enabled policy involvement during graduate school.
“Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she explains. “We have to think about how the research impacts policy, people and society and how society, in turn, impacts science.”
One of the biggest challenges, McKelvey says, is bringing new research and investigational therapies to patients in a safe, effective and timely manner, no matter where they live. But it’s a challenge she’s well suited for.
“I’m fortunate that what I get to do every day is a great intersection of all my experiences and training.”