This year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Annual Meeting was already destined to be different because of COVID-19, but nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis added another dimension to the conversation.
Attendees at the ASCO virtual conference shared thoughts and personal stories about racial injustice. However, discussing cancer on social media at this moment in time was questioned by some.
“Huge contrast in twitter feeds this morning. The oncology cheerleading doesn’t feel right,” Dr. Deanna Attai wrote on May 30. Dr. Cary Gross asked whether ASCO would be issuing a statement “calling out racism, committing to equity?”
Huge contrast in twitter feeds this morning. The oncology cheerleading doesn’t feel right.
— Dr. Deanna Attai (@DrAttai) May 30, 2020
Conversations during the three-day meeting did indeed include health equity. Other major themes included the intersection between cancer and COVID-19; several promising therapies; and the need to work together to fight cancer – for all people.
Is anyone else having hard time focusing on #ASCO20 #cancer meeting, while people of color, communities are in so much pain? Has @ASCO issued statement calling out racism, committing to equity? I may have missed; haven’t tuned in. Waiting… pic.twitter.com/bTWhxLTQfA
— Cary Gross (@cpgYALE) May 30, 2020
Incoming ASCO President Lori J. Pierce, M.D., announced in a May 25 interview that her theme for the year would be “Equity. Every patient. Every day. Everywhere.” She said she chose to highlight the issue “because health care equity is at the forefront of everything we do at ASCO.”
More than 200 ASCO sessions or posters delved into the issues of racial inequity and access to care, according to analytics we gathered from a search on “disparities” and “diversity” in the meeting content. One such session pointed to significant disparities in the treatment of early-stage anal cancer, a highly treatable cancer; a large study showed African Americans did not get treated as soon and had worse overall survival rates than white people. Another session focused on the relative lack of palliative care provided to people of color.
The novel coronavirus pandemic spurred a flurry of new research and discussion. COVID-19 patients with cancer are at an increased risk of dying within a month, according to one study. HCPs were intrigued by the impact of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin on mortality among cancer patients with COVID-19. And because chemotherapy within three months prior to a COVID-19 diagnosis is associated with higher mortality among thoracic cancer patients, another study showed, HCPs noted they are going to be careful initiating chemotherapy treatments of COVID-19 in cancer patient during the pandemic.
Lung cancer research sparked the most conversation, driven by several clinical data virtual presentations focused on specific subpopulations, including patients with KRAS and HER2. A late-breaking abstract featuring AstraZeneca’s ADAURA trial evaluating Tagrisso in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) drew attention given the overwhelmingly positive results.
In other cancers, notable research included early data on a number of potentially promising therapies, including:
- Janssen’s Phase 1 study of teclistamab (JNJ-7957)in patients with relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma
- Bristol Myers Squibb and bluebird bio’s Phase 2 KarMMa trial of bb2121in patients with relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma
- CARTITUDE-1 trial of JNJ-4528 in patients with relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma
- ENHERTU®, traditionally a breast cancer drug, in patients with HER2-positive gastric, colorectal and lung cancers
- CAR-T therapy prostate cancer data from the Phase 3 SPARTAN (Janssen), PROSPER (Pfizer, Astellas) and ARAMIS (Orion) trials
We were encouraged to see the oncology community come together for the greater good.
The most-shared link on social media throughout the meeting was for Conquer Cancer – the ASCO Foundation, which provides support for cancer care teams and patients during and after the pandemic.
As the conference concluded Sunday amid continued cries for racial justice, the oncology community was left with this challenge: To hold ourselves accountable to advance the ideal of health equality and participate in these vital discussions. We need greater diversity in the ranks of health care providers and researchers – both in oncology and other areas of medicine – and we need to work toward health care access for every American.
Read more of our ASCO 2020 content.