Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, Empowers Innovation and Delivers Meaningful Results in Cancer Care

Mar 12, 2024

To accelerate scientific breakthroughs, enhance health equity, and improve patient outcomes for all, Conquer Cancer supports some of the most promising oncology research and programs around the world.

By Jimmy O’Hara, Conquer Cancer

Breakthroughs in cancer research take years, sometimes decades. Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, supports and accelerates those breakthroughs so that they can more quickly reach the patients who need them. Accomplishing this requires identifying and funding programs and research projects with the potential to make a tangible, meaningful impact for every cancer, every patient, everywhere. It also requires an intentional, ongoing commitment to integrating equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) across the cancer care continuum so that all patients can reach the best possible outcomes. This includes supporting efforts that advance not only research, but also continuing education for oncology providers and promotion of the highest-quality, equitable patient care.

It’s no easy feat. Every potential project or program is assessed using rigorous standards and guidelines to ensure its viability and assess its potential impact. And while the measures might be exacting, the possibilities for projects that can be funded are boundless. Ultimately, Conquer Cancer strives to support every project that demonstrates innovation, empowers EDI, and shows promise for people with cancer around the world. These efforts reflect ASCO’s commitment to EDI and embody the Society’s mission pillars of research, education, and quality, and core values of evidence, care, and impact.

Here are just a few of the many innovative research projects and ASCO programs that Conquer Cancer funding has made possible. 

Challenge: Increasing Access to Cancer Care in Rural Montana

The Increasing Access to Cancer Care in Rural Montana pilot program aims to address geographic barriers to care, improve care delivery through staff training, and enable rural medical facilities to serve as primary points of contact for patients in the frontier area of southwest Montana. The program employs a hub-and-spoke model to deliver care through its relationship with Bozeman Deaconess Cancer Center. As the hub, Bozeman provides a full array of cancer care services, enabling the delivery of chemotherapy infusion at Barrett Hospital and HealthCare (the spoke), a critical access hospital with limited resources. Montana State University College of Nursing is a collaborative partner.

Result: Better Access to Lifesaving Care for Remote Patients

In addition to offsetting the costs of infrastructure enhancements and training for non-oncology care team members, the program is improving local patients’ access to chemotherapy treatment and high-quality care. Furthermore, the program helps overcome the distance- and travel-related barriers to care commonly experienced by patients at Barrett, which has been historically unable to offer chemotherapy infusion. To maximize the program’s impact, ASCO is documenting the challenges and solutions to implementation so that the model can be scaled and replicated by others. This project was supported by an anonymous donor.

Challenge: Improving the Quality of Cancer Care in Medically Underserved Communities

More than 3,000 medically underserved communities exist across the U.S., leaving patients in these areas vulnerable to late-stage diagnosis and increased mortality rates. The Improving Quality of Care in Underserved Communities project launched in 2015 to help close the gaps that patients in these areas experience in accessing care, treatment, and educational resources. The program supports nine practices in major U.S. cities and rural communities with a large proportion of low-income patients, along with populations structurally excluded from equitable cancer care. Participating sites enroll in ASCO’s Quality Training Program, which aims to improve patient outcomes through enhanced staff education and direct process improvement within their care delivery workflows. These sites identify practice-specific areas for clinical development; cultivate a culture of quality improvement within care teams; develop improved processes to achieve diverse patient recruitment in clinical trial research; and work to elevate the patient experience across the cancer care continuum.

Result: Higher-Quality Care Through Education, Training, and Support 

The program enables ASCO to provide vital education, training, and support to institutions striving for quality improvement. Since its beginning, the program has grown from supporting four oncology practices and institutions to nine. Without funding, participating cancer centers would lack the resources to prioritize quality improvement initiatives and provide necessary training to staff. Through this program, ASCO identifies specific challenges related to patient education and care navigation to help mitigate social factors that prevent patients from receiving the highest-quality cancer care. This project was supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Challenge: Monitor and Study the Effects of COVID-19 and Vaccines on Cancer Outcomes

Launched in 2020, the ASCO Survey on COVID-19 in Oncology Registry (ASCO Registry) aimed to better understand the impact of a COVID-19 diagnosis on cancer outcomes. The registry collected and aggregated data on both SARS-CoV-2 infection and cancer outcomes at 30-day intervals for the first 3 months and then at regular intervals for up to 2 years after a positive SARS-CoV-2 test. As the pandemic evolved, the registry made it possible to answer vital questions about cancer outcomes by creating a database with quality patient data from oncology practices. The registry also recorded data about new treatment approaches and vaccinations for COVID-19. While the registry is now closed to new participants, it continues to collect follow-up data on current patients. 

Result: A Better Understanding of the Pandemic’s Impact in Cancer Settings

To date, few sources demonstrate the protective effects of COVID-19 vaccines in cancer-specific populations. The registry provides a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 vaccination on cancer outcomes by tracing vaccination patterns in patients facing this double burden. The program also enables early-career research teams to access ASCO Registry data for their own studies. Oncology professionals have used the registry to analyze how social determinants of health can shape cancer outcomes for patients with COVID-19 and to uncover and address disparities related to COVID-19 and cancer care. This project was supported through the Conquer Cancer COVID-19 Initiative.

Challenge: Making Multidisciplinary Cancer Management Training More Accessible

Using methods such as mock tumor board discussions and local case presentations, ASCO’s Multidisciplinary Cancer Management Courses (MCMCs) are designed to guide the management of common cancers through multidisciplinary collaboration and decision-making. Participants are trained to include all care team members involved in the decision-making process and the patient’s care. Case presentations are tailored to the unique local factors of each setting and feature collaborative conversations about a wide range of treatment approaches for patients. Multidisciplinary teams of local and global oncology experts discuss viable avenues for cancer care, including (but not limited to) standard approaches, targeted treatments, radiation therapies, surgical procedures, and supportive and palliative care options. ASCO partners with oncology societies and institutions to facilitate these courses, which are primarily held in low- and middle-income practice settings.

Result: Improving Care Through International Collaboration and Education

MCMCs bring global oncology experts together to promote ongoing medical education for cancer care professionals. Participants engage directly with learners in their home countries and exchange knowledge that providers can share with their patients. MCMCs connect ASCO members on an international level with the shared goal of optimizing cancer care practices and delivering the highest-quality care possible to patients around the world. Approximately 90% of participants surveyed report that they implemented changes to their practice within 6 months of taking the course. Participants are also able to share and receive timely resources, care guidelines, journal articles, and supporting information through the MCMC initiative. This project was supported by Roche.

Challenge: Assess the Impact of Supportive Care Tools on Blood Cancer Treatment

Increasingly, research indicates that supportive care tools have a meaningful impact for patients undergoing blood cancer treatments, which can be particularly intense and taxing. Supported by a 2020 Young Investigator Award (YIA) from Conquer Cancer, Rahul Banerjee, MD, FACP, and his team launched a randomized phase II study to better understand how digital life coaching (DLC) can improve quality of life for patients undergoing stem cell transplantation (SCT) for multiple myeloma. DLC pairs patients with a life coach to help them achieve personal care goals related to exercise, sleep, nutrition, and stress reduction. Patients receive DLC support through phone calls and text messages from their hospital bed, in clinic during a long infusion, or from home. DLC content can also be tailored to the unique needs of individual patients, who may connect with their coaches about a wide range of topics.

Result: Digital Interventions and Dosing Strategies That Improve Quality of Life

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, research funds were scarce, but with critical YIA support, Dr. Banerjee and his colleagues were able to complete their DLC study. They found that, compared to standard handouts for supportive care, DLC improved physical quality of life for patients following treatment. The study also showed that patients using DLC had significant reductions in emotional distress. As a result of these initial milestones, Dr. Banerjee has largely pivoted his research toward digital interventions and dosing strategies that can help make treatments more tolerable for patients with blood cancers. He’s expanding his work to measure DLC’s effectiveness across two studies that could potentially enroll as many as 150 patients.

Challenge: Addressing Breast Cancer Deaths and Diagnostic Disparities in Uganda

Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related death in Uganda, where limited screening options frequently result in patients being diagnosed at advanced stages. In resource-limited settings, immunohistochemistry is often scarce, despite currently being the standard approach for breast cancer detection. Instead, Uganda has more widely available access to cartridge-based testing. While more commonly used to diagnose and treat patients with tuberculosis, this testing approach may also show promise for breast cancer screening. Using support from a 2018 Global Oncology YIA, Manoj P. Menon, MD, aims to improve diagnostic options for patients with breast cancer in Uganda and other regions of Sub-Saharan Africa by studying the effectiveness of a specific cartridge-based testing approach for diagnosing hormone receptor and HER2 status. 

Result: Making Inroads to Better Diagnostic Access in Under-Resourced Countries

Dr. Menon was able to get protected research time and access the resources for testing a specific cartridge-based diagnostic platform with technology available in many resource-limited countries, including Uganda. This enabled Dr. Menon and colleagues to perform receptor testing and related screenings in a timely manner. It contributed to a phase I trial for describing the molecular profile of breast cancer in Ugandan patients, which can help inform doctors and help researchers identify factors associated with tumor development, growth, and spread.

Challenge: Helping Patients Through Emotional Support for Caregivers

There’s a well-established link between the emotional support and well-being of caregivers and patient outcomes. For patients dealing with advanced-stage brain tumors, their caregivers typically face heavy emotional distress. More than half of caregivers show clinically significant anxiety symptoms within a few months following the patient’s brain cancer diagnosis, but few supportive care resources exist for them. To address this unmet need, Deborah Forst, MD, and her team developed NeuroCARE, a psychological intervention to help relieve and mitigate anxiety for caregivers of patients with brain tumors. NeuroCARE is informed by caregiver interviews, cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness practices. Supported by a 2019 Career Development Award from Conquer Cancer, Dr. Forst and her team conducted a randomized controlled trial of NeuroCARE compared with standard supportive care. 

Result: Supported Caregivers Mean Better Outcomes for Patients

Dr. Forst’s trial, which enrolled 120 caregivers, showed that caregivers using NeuroCARE significantly benefited from this intervention. NeuroCARE participants experienced significantly reduced anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as heightened self-efficacy and coping skills, compared with those receiving usual supportive care. Dr. Forst plans to use the NeuroCARE trial results to guide the implementation of another randomized controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of NeuroCARE across multiple care settings. Through continued research, Dr. Forst aims to bring further attention to this burdened caregiver population and to show that effective interventions can be developed to support their unique needs. Such efforts can drive future research in this understudied area and ultimately improve outcomes for patients with brain tumors and their caregivers.

Challenge: Preventing Treatment Toxicity by Studying Patient-Reported Outcomes

Collecting patient-reported outcomes (PROs) can help oncologists more effectively monitor patients for treatment toxicity, which plays a significant role in patients’ quality of life. Supported by a 2021 Conquer Cancer YIA, Erin Bange, MD, MSCE, found that a text-based questionnaire (TIME) using PROs was highly successful in identifying patients who did not experience side effects from immunotherapy. Based on these insights, Dr. Bange and her team hypothesized that pairing the TIME intervention with routine laboratory testing could help numerous patients fast-track their care. Meanwhile, patients undergoing immunotherapy with no side effects could pursue infusion treatment without needing a formal doctor visit.

Result: A More Patient-Centered Approach to Cancer Treatment

Dr. Bange’s study was the first of its kind to evaluate whether PROs can be used to safely accelerate treatment for patients. She and her team developed the TIME platform to administer the toxicity questionnaire and hired the necessary staff to implement the intervention across their cancer center. The tool can give patients more personalized, timely options for how to safely receive and manage their cancer treatment, instead of defaulting to a one-size-fits-all approach. This can help give patients the option to fast-track their cancer treatments. Ultimately, this project could help drive future innovations in cancer research for delivering patient-centered care. This YIA was supported by Greg Parekh/New Rhein Healthcare, LLC.

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