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Making an impact on cancer, personally and professionally


For Michael Holtz, creating the deliverable for his ORAU Thought Leadership Research Award was almost as important as writing his thesis for the Master of Science degree he received in 1998.

“Kind of like grad school, this project was the culmination of a lot of things,” said Holtz, a senior communications and marketing specialist for ORAU. “It involved research into ORAU’s early history of running a cancer hospital back when the organization was known as ORINS, or the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies, my professional and volunteer experience as a cancer policy advocate, and all of the time I have spent over the years meeting fellow cancer survivors.”

Holtz is a 12-year survivor of stage IIIB rectal cancer. He was working for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network when he was diagnosed in 2012 and left the organization in 2014. He returned to ACS CAN as Tennessee’s leading volunteer in early 2015 and recently moved into a national volunteer leadership role. He also volunteers for Fight Colorectal Cancer, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, the Cancer Support Community of East Tennessee and Man Up to Cancer. 

He applied for and received a thought leadership research award to develop a white paper aligning ORAU’s cancer capabilities with the federal government’s agenda in the cancer space and recommends ideas for seven ORAU-Directed Research and Development projects.

His recommendations include research projects that:

  • Improve cancer screening rates among underserved communities, especially black and LGBTQIA+ communities that have higher cancer risk and mortality rates.
  • Study and improve the processes for collecting patient-reported outcome measures between treatment visits.
  • Identify best practices for communication to improve awareness of low-dose CT for lung cancer screening. Lung cancer is currently at the highest rates of diagnosis and death in the United States.
  • Focus on cancer-related stigma and the preference for or against using militaristic language, like cancer fight or cancer battle, to describe a patient’s cancer treatment experience.
  • Ensure inclusion of the special needs of cancer patients in disaster preparedness guidelines.
  • Focus on the benefits of peer-to-peer support to the mental health and quality of life of men diagnosed with cancer.
  • Develop and test messaging to patients who may wish to request a blood test to screen for colorectal cancer rather than submit to a colonoscopy.

During his treatment journey, Holtz underwent radiation therapy. Learning about the ORINS cancer hospital, which established ORAU as a pioneer in the field of nuclear medicine and cancer treatment, has been a full circle experience, he said.

ORAU started working in the cancer space when the Atomic Energy Commission asked ORINS to stand up a hospital to study how research into the radioisotopes that had been produced as part of the Manhattan project could be used to treat cancer. The ORINS cancer hospital, which opened in 1950, was one of three the AEC set up around the country. The others were located at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. During the 24 years the hospital was open, 3,500 patients were treated,most of whom were considered terminal.

“We don’t talk about this part of our history very often, but as someone who was treated with radiation, it’s fascinating to know that the disciplines of nuclear medicine, radiation therapy, immunology and oncology have their roots right here at ORAU,” said Holtz.

Since the hospital closed in 1974, ORAU has continued to work on cancer in other areas, including epidemiology and exposure science, radiation studies, peer review and health communications. 

Holtz is hopeful his recommendations can have an impact on both ORAU’s research enterprise and in ending cancer as we know it.

“We can do great things and impact cancer risk, survivorship, early detection and prevention, and quality of life for cancer patients and their families, he said.

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Media Contacts

Pam BoneeDirector, CommunicationsCell: (865) 603-5142
Wendy WestManager, CommunicationsCell: (865) 207-7953