Apr 20, 2023
Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO, serves as a host of the Conquer Cancer podcast “Your Stories: Conquering Cancer,” and was the recipient of a 2002 Conquer Cancer Career Development Award (CDA). Dr. Dizon is a professor of medicine and professor of surgery at Brown University, a breast and pelvic malignancies oncologist, director of the Pelvic Malignancies Program at Lifespan Cancer Institute, director of medical oncology at Rhode Island Hospital, and associate director of community outreach and engagement at Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown University. Additionally, he is the vice-chair of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Professional Integrity for SWOG Oncology Research Network, co-chief medical officer at the Global Cancer Institute, and serves on the boards of The Hope Foundation and The National LGBT Cancer Network.
Learn why Dr. Dizon works to advance equity for all patients and why he volunteers his time with Conquer Cancer.
What initially drew you to the field of oncology?
DD: I became interested in oncology in medical school during my rotation in medicine as a third-year student. I was following an older gentleman, newly diagnosed with lymphoma. I met him on arrival, spent time with him and his children taking a history, learning about him, his life, and his family. I was present when they reviewed a treatment plan. I saw him every morning, until one day, he was gone. I remember my resident standing outside of his room and when he saw me, he pulled me aside to tell me this man had died suddenly in the night. I remember feeling devastated and feeling he deserved better—better and less toxic treatments. That was my sentinel moment, where I decided I wanted to work toward a better future for people with cancer.
What brings you the most joy when providing care for patients with breast and pelvic malignancies?
DD: I have been so fortunate to be let into people’s lives—not only those diagnosed with cancer, but their loved ones and families. Everyone is so scared after that diagnosis, and it provides me great comfort in helping them see hope, no matter the circumstance.
What brings me joy is taking someone through an experimental therapy and seeing them do better than expected. I am running a clinical trial for volunteers with a rare cancer—clear cell carcinoma—and most of those enrolled have ovarian or uterine cancer. People who enter this trial are often so scared, worried it will be their last chance. Telling someone on a trial that their tumor is responding, or is gone, is one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my career.
Why do you volunteer as a podcast host for “Your Stories: Conquering Cancer?”
DD: I believe in stories, and that each of us has important ones to tell. Whether we are researchers, clinicians, survivors, or caregivers, cancer touches us in so many different ways. Somewhere, someone will hear a story and feel camaraderie or, maybe, less alone. That’s important. Plus, the stories we tell are testaments to the strength of the human spirit, particularly as we seek a future where cancer is not a death sentence, where it is controlled and, better yet, cured. The podcast that is hosted by Conquer Cancer is one of the ways in which we can show that this is not a dream, but a destination we are on our way toward reaching.
What drives your research interests in novel therapies for breast, ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancers, particularly in the context of sexual health?
DD: I think it’s the quest for something better: a drug that produces a higher response rate, a treatment that mitigates a common side effect, and interventions that can help survivors toward the path to a new normal. We have to strive for improvements, and that’s where my passion for novel approaches comes from. I was lucky enough to work with a dedicated team led by Dr. Michael Krychman, who focused on oncology sexual health, while a junior attending in New York City. It was eye-opening to see that such services were not widely available at all hospitals, and I realized how much of a need there was. Sexuality is so inherently human, and this should not be something sacrificed due to cancer and its treatment. Figuring out how we can better meet the needs of people after cancer has been one of the passion projects that has endured throughout my career.
How did receiving a 2002 Conquer Cancer CDA help to accelerate your research for patients? What is the impact of this donor- supported work more than two decades later?
DD: I admit that I still suffer from impostor syndrome, and it was evident when I received word of my CDA. I thought it was a mistake and even as I went to the ASCO Annual Meeting and received my award, I worried that someone would point out the obvious error that had been made. But I had a strong mentor who guided the work that resulted in this CDA, and I learned to trust that I did deserve it. That award was to do translational work to better understand drug resistance in ovarian cancer. It helped lay the foundation for my interests in early drug development. Since then, I have designed, led, and run phase I and phase II clinical trials in ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancer. So, this CDA was foundational in helping me not only to develop as a clinical researcher but also to believe in myself.
What are some vital steps oncology professionals can take to help advance health equity for LGBTQIA+ patients with cancer?
DD: One of the things we must do is make the collection of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data part of standards of care. As it stands, there is no standardized collection of SOGI data, and hence, it’s almost as if members of the sexual- and gender-minoritized (SGM) communities do not exist. This has to change if we are going to live up to the principles of inclusion.
There is a test available online called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is run by Project Implicit (implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/). It tests the associations between concepts, evaluations, and stereotypes, and is a means to evaluate for implicit bias, and one of these tests gauges whether one has an implicit preference for one group over another, or put another way, it tests to see if you might hold a bias against people from a different group. One of the IATs one can do looks at sexuality (the Gay-Straight IAT). If one has not done this, I suggest one look at it. It’s a way to see if we have a blind spot, and to make us more aware that it exists. By understanding it is there, one can take further action to address it. We should all be aware that biases exist and that they can stand in the way of true health equity.
Do you have a standout memory of volunteering your time with Conquer Cancer? What made this experience so meaningful to you?
DD: I was thrilled to be the host of the Evening to Conquer Cancer event during the 2022 ASCO Annual Meeting. I remember looking out at the diners gathered—remember, this was the first [in-person ASCO Annual Meeting] after COVID-19—and almost becoming emotional seeing so many mentors, colleagues, and friends in attendance. After two years of virtual events, it felt surreal. It felt like community. Plus, I was wearing a killer orange blazer—it still stands as one of my favorite pieces.
What do you want ASCO members to know about the impact of Conquer Cancer’s Grants & Awards program? What makes Conquer Cancer unique?
DD: The Conquer Cancer Grants & Awards program is a vital lifeline to young investigators. It has helped to shape so many minds and launch so many careers. Funding is so important if we want to improve upon what we do now, to fulfill the mission of turning all cancers from something potentially fatal to something that can be cured and, short of that, controlled. This program has helped so many of us commit to a career as academic and translational oncologists, and it has done so with a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion. Conquer Cancer funds the best science, from the brightest and most promising minds, chosen from a truly diverse group of applicants. It seeks to support all outstanding proposals that are submitted and with continued support and growth, that will—and should—continue.