A Generous Heart
An accomplished author, Dr. Spector wrote “Gone in a Heartbeat: A Physician's Search for True Healing,” which was published in 2015. The book chronicles his courageous battle with Lyme Disease, which went undiagnosed and untreated for years. Finally diagnosed in 1997, the disease ultimately damaged his heart, and in 2009 Dr. Spector received a heart transplant at Duke. A mere 48 hours after the surgery, he was walking three miles around Duke’s cardiology floors.
Dr. Spector became a tireless advocate for increased Lyme Disease research and awareness; from speaking engagements and media interviews on the subject, to serving on the advisory board of a leading Lyme Disease-focused nonprofit, to carrying out his own research into Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.
In fact, his research into the tick-borne parasite Borrelia burgdorferi and the bacteria Bartonella, both of which have been linked to Lyme Disease in humans, had recently expanded into investigating a possible overlap between these pathogens and cancer.
"Neil was a compassionate physician and a creative scientist, always striving to develop new and safer ways to treat cancer," said Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, executive director of Duke Cancer Institute. "After his bout with the ravages of Lyme disease, he became a prominent spokesperson for that field, reaching the hearts and minds of all who read his book or heard him speak about his personal journey."
As news of Dr. Spector's passing reached the Lyme Disease and wider oncology community, tributes from across the world continued to pour in via social media: "a lion," "a best friend to everyone he met," "a legend," "a hero," "a shining light, "a huge loss."
"Dr. Neil Spector was a known physician-scientist, a fighter, and an advocate of the IBC community. He sponsored one of few targeted trials for the disease. I will miss you my friend," Tweeted Massimo Cristofanill, MD, FACP, associate director for Precision Medicine and Translational Research/Breast Medical Oncology/Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research and Treatment at Northwestern University's Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.
"Neil Spector passes away but hands each of us a baton of hope," Tweeted the Canadian nonprofit Lyme Hope.
Dr. Spector earned his medical degree at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 1982. He completed his medical oncology and hematology fellowship training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School (1986 to 1989) where he remained on faculty until 1993, seeing patients and conducting basic cancer research. From 1993 to 1998, he served on the faculty at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Division Hematology/Oncology.
He spent his childhood at the National institutes of Health where his father was a prolific scientist. In 2013, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation wrote a profile article about Dr. Spector — then a Komen Research Scholar — describing him as "a gladiator" in the battle against cancer.
In the article, Dr. Spector, shared, “As a family we used to go to the NIH clinical center where they had movies on the top floor. My sister and I would be playing with kids who were sent to the NIH with the rarest of diseases.” Family friends apparently worried about the effect that exposure to sick and dying children would have on him and his sister. But, as Dr. Spector said, “Growing up around science, medicine, illness – it just became part of our blood.”
"We have lost a wonderful physician, researcher, and good friend," wrote James Abbruzzese, MD, chief of the Division of Medical Oncology, and associate director for Clinical Research at DCI, when the devastating news reached him on Monday. "Let us join together in taking a moment to reflect on Neil's indomitable spirit and his many accomplishments.
Dr. Spector leaves a wife, Denise, and daughter, Celeste. Duke Cancer Institute, the Department of Medicine, the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, and the School of Medicine extend their deepest condolences to Dr. Spector’s family and friends. Arrangements are pending, but an in memoriam page has been set up by the Hudson Funeral Home. We will provide any additional information on how we can pay our respects and support his family as soon as these details become available.