Jul 16, 2019
By Carson Rolleri, ASCO Communications
Howard A. “Skip” Burris, MD, FACP, FASCO, always knew that he wanted to pursue a career that helped other people, where he could be a leader, and where he could satisfy his thirst for knowledge. However, he was not always sure this path would be medicine.
Becoming a physician wasn’t really something I decided on until my college years,” Dr. Burris said. “During that time, I met some physicians who seemed to absolutely love their jobs. They were doing something academically and scientifically interesting, and they were really helping people, which is what drew me in.”
And what a journey it’s been, as 38 years later, Dr. Burris began his term as the 2019-2020 ASCO president, where his intellectual curiosity, passion for helping people, and civic leadership will serve patients and the broader oncology community.
Dr. Burris is the chief medical officer, president of Clinical Operations, and executive director of Drug Development at Sarah Cannon Research Institute, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare. He is an associate of Tennessee Oncology, PLLC, where he practices medical oncology.
Immediate past president Monica M. Bertagnolli, MD, FACS, FASCO, said that Dr. Burris’s varied and expansive experiences across cancer care settings, as well as his expertise in clinical research and demonstrated leadership skills, will guide the Society into the future of cancer care.
“Dr. Burris has the keen ability to inspire, to bring people together to see the big picture,” said Dr. Bertagnolli. “A leader in clinical research, his innovations have made quality care accessible to more patients. As a leader within ASCO, his unique viewpoints have helped ASCO take on change. I’m looking forward to seeing all that he accomplishes during his term.”
Dr. Burris completed his undergraduate education at the United States Military Academy at West Point, attracted to the large service component of the school’s education as well as its reputation for training highly competent leaders. Though an unconventional path to medical school, he discovered a field that brought together all his interests and medicine became his passion.
Oncology came later, too. After earning his medical degree from the University of South Alabama in 1985, it was not until his residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, that he became intrigued by cancer, inspired by the recent clinical discoveries as well as the cancer care team and patients there. He completed both his residency and fellowship in hematology/oncology at the center, which exposed him to many different types of patient populations.
“I was able to practice in several different settings, which gave me a greater awareness about the different life situations patients are in,” said Dr. Burris. “Early on in my training, I learned that this is part of the story: seeing beyond the patient’s diagnosis into their life circumstances, their family situation and how those affect approaches to care.”
Getting to know his patients has been his priority throughout his career. While the emotional toll can be heavy, to Dr. Burris it has always been worth it.
“Very early in my oncology career, I took care of a young mother who had metastatic breast cancer. We knew she wasn’t going to live a long time, but she was so grateful for everything that we did for her. She had such specific goals for how she wanted to be remembered by her child, which included teaching her son how to read,” he remembered.
“Throughout the years, I’ve had so many stories like this one. These patients are fighting for their lives and doing everything they can to battle this disease, but it all comes down to things like graduations, weddings, and grandchildren. Listening to the personal side of your patient’s life can be emotionally difficult, but it is tremendously rewarding to help them accomplish some of their goals.”
Dr. Burris also credits his mentors for the fulfillment he finds in oncology, having been introduced to clinical trials and drug development by cancer care giant Dr. Daniel D. Von Hoff. The mentoring relationship led to Dr. Burris’s lifelong excitement about the possibility of new therapies. Through Dr. Von Hoff, he learned how to partner with a patient and stepped into leadership opportunities that have helped to define his career. (Dr. Von Hoff has since received ASCO’s most prestigious award, the 2010 David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award.)
While in Texas, Dr. Burris served as the director of clinical research at The Institute for Drug Development of the Cancer Therapy and Research Center and The University of Texas Health Science Center. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and among his decorations, he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster for his service in Operation Joint Endeavor.
Despite his impressive career accomplishments, which also include establishing the first community-based phase I drug development program in Nashville in 1997 (now the Sarah Cannon Research Institute), authoring more than 350 publications, and leading the first-in-human studies for many now-approved drugs that have changed the standard of care for several types of cancers, Dr. Burris does not point to these experiences when defining success.
“There’s a sign in the clinic where I see my patients that I love reading every day,” said Dr. Burris. “It simply says, ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Be kind.’ Being nice is saying hello to people and smiling, and I try to do that. But being kind is that next step, doing something above and beyond for another person. I think trying to do that as often as possible is really what makes me feel successful in life.
“Being an oncologist is a stressful job, and we’re taking care of patients with a very difficult disease. I have always felt like I am successful as an oncologist not because of a presentation or a publication or by financial or material means. If a patient leaves my office or the clinic and feels connected, and they know that I am there for them, that’s how I measure success. It’s one patient at a time.”
ASCO as a Catalyst for Partnerships
Dr. Burris has had a long history with ASCO, joining the organization in 1991. He has been elected to and served as a member of the ASCO Board of Directors (2006-2009) as well as chair of the Nominating Committee (2012-2013), and served on the Board of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation. His committee memberships have included the Cancer Research, Education, Scientific Program, Research Community Forum, Audit, and Sponsorship Committees.
“Being a part of ASCO’s Board of Directors was very inspiring because I had the chance to really be a leader when the organization was going through a lot of change,” said Dr. Burris. “It was this experience that helped my election for ASCO president, which is certainly the biggest honor I have had in my oncology career.”
Dr. Burris’s theme for his 2019-2020 term is “Unite and Conquer: Accelerating Progress Together,” a mission that he has pursued throughout his career in cancer care. The theme stresses the importance of every person in the field, regardless of their role, working together to provide patients the best care possible.
“When we think of taking on important tasks, we usually think of dividing and conquering,” said Dr. Burris. “In oncology and in taking care of patients with cancer, I’ve always been a strong believer that to deliver quality care effectively, we need to unite and conquer. Oncology is such a team-based field with the patient being the most important part; as oncologists, nurses, pharmacists, and cancer care professionals, we need to come together to make accessible, quality care a reality.
“Having spent time as a military physician and as an academic physician, both in the community and in private practice, the overarching, unaddressed need I’ve seen is understanding that everyone working together is the only way to see better outcomes.”
Dr. Burris points to the contributions of ASCO’s patient advocate members, globalization, and the Society’s conversations with payers and relationships with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a great groundwork for his theme. During his term, he plans on taking this collaborative spirit a step further by making sure more nurses, patient advocates, and patients are included, specifically in important Society activities like committee membership and the ASCO Annual Meeting.
“The ASCO Research Community Forum is a great example of a place where we discuss critical topics and include the voices of patients, administrators, nurses, and operational leads,” said Dr. Burris. “It’s interesting and so much more productive to have all of these different viewpoints at the table addressing the same problems, and it accelerates any progress we can make.”
Making Time to Pay It Forward
When asked how the new role will affect his day-to-day life, Dr. Burris plans to prioritize balance during his leadership term: “The demands on my time will definitely increase, and I want to be as mentally sharp as possible to be the best for these new responsibilities.”
To find balance when it comes to self-care and managing his time, Dr. Burris stresses the importance of diligence, something he and his wife, Karen, are focusing on this year. For him, this includes being more intentional about diet and exercise, saying no to things that are not priorities, and trying to multitask less so he can fully concentrate on the task at hand—including less time on electronic devices.
“With all the devices available, it’s addictive to stay tuned in,” said Dr. Burris. “Blocking time for devices works well for me so that I am able to be more present in meetings, focus on colleagues, and make the most of time with patients. I plan to be diligent about focusing on what is important and not fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”
Something he considers very important? Making the time to mentor other oncologists.
“There’s little we do that’s more important than teaching the next generation and carrying on the culture we want to have in oncology care, as well as making sure to recognize the full picture of the past,” said Dr. Burris.
The key to a successful mentoring relationship, he believes, is making time to meet one-on-one and really listening—which he admits is easier said than done, but is crucial to helping mentees work through any problems.
“The work we do on the clinical research front is about the people we are helping but also those we are working alongside,” said Dr. Burris. “Helping colleagues be successful—that’s the greatest feeling of success I can experience.”