Coping with Uncertainty and Fear in the Cancer Community

Dr. Burris, Dr. Roberts, and Dr. Hudis speaking at podiums during ASCO events

By Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO; Thomas G. Roberts, Jr., MD, FASCO; Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO

Today, a little over a month since causing its first recorded fatality in the United States, COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in America, as reported by Newsweek.

COVID-19 is challenging us everywhere we turn, creating a general sense of uncertainty and real fear for our safety, health, and livelihoods. Early data from Italy, China, and New York suggests that cancer patients on active treatment may be particularly susceptible to the most serious manifestations of COVID-19.

Our unease is accompanied by a not-so-distant drumbeat of loss and suffering as we read about frontline essential workers — from bus drivers, to EMTs, to nurses and physicians — falling ill and even dying of COVID-19. Even closer, more and more of us have lost loved ones, friends, neighbors and others.

With this grim news around us, it is encouraging to note good news where possible; this crisis has brought out much to appreciate and share. For example, we are seeing that in the hardest hit communities around the world, social distancing really seems to be working. New diagnoses and new admissions to intensive care units are possibly peaking if not beginning to drop. These observations don’t allow us to precisely predict when and how this crisis will end, but they do reassure us that improvement — probably due to handwashing and physical distancing — is having a measurable impact. Further, this suggests a path forward and an end to the crisis.

In a look towards life after the pandemic, we considered saying when we return our focus to our mission of conquering cancer, but it has never wavered. Through this we see special challenges faced by patients with cancer and their families and caregivers. We also see very special burdens placed on the research community, as resources are diverted and laboratories closed as “non-essential”. In fact, researchers are always essential, and we will pay a steep price for the slowing of research, learning, and progress in the years ahead — if we let this continue.

In the face of these challenges, we at ASCO and Conquer Cancer have redoubled our efforts to deliver the latest scientific discoveries in cancer care, accelerate the education of our community, including patients, and drive the most important and high impact research for today and tomorrow, including gaining understanding of COVID-19 in patients with malignancies. Thus far, ASCO and Conquer Cancer are:

  • Providing updated, physician-approved information as it relates to COVID-19 and cancer care on our patient information site, Cancer.Net
  • Raising funds to ensure patient care — including breakthrough research — is maintained through the pandemic
  • Creating a COVID-19 registry to collect baseline information about patients with cancer infected with COVID-19 to guide treatment and future patient care

We are more confident with each passing week that this new normal — social distancing, work-from-home and more — will continue to be accompanied by extraordinary productivity (given the circumstances). The ASCO and Conquer Cancer staff is working from their homes around the country, using ASCO’s core values of evidence, care, and impact every day, to prioritize the most important work and best serve the oncology community and patients everywhere.

We do so in service to the health care teams — in oncology and on the front lines during this crisis — and the lives they are saving around the world. For this, we are grateful, hopeful, and optimistic.

Dr. Burris is the president of ASCO;

Dr. Roberts is the chair of the Conquer Cancer Board of Directors;

Dr. Hudis is the CEO of ASCO and Conquer Cancer