Investing in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Mar 08, 2021

As the first doctor ever to receive a research grant from ASCO, in 1984, Judith Kaur, MD, knows possibilities are endless when intellect and eagerness are met with opportunity.

Dr. Kaur, the first person from her family to graduate high school, is one of only two Native Americans who practice oncology in the United States. If she had listened to medical school admissions officers in 1975 who told the then 30-something mother she was too old or too removed from a traditional education trajectory to become an oncologist, patients everywhere—especially those Dr. Kaur serves as the medical director for the Native American Programs at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center—would not have benefited from her breakthroughs in breast and cervical cancer and in palliative care.

As an ASCO member and Conquer Cancer donor, Dr. Kaur recently spoke with Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, ASCO past president and chair of the ASCO and Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation Boards. They discussed Conquer Cancer’s plans to expand opportunities and funding for patients and oncology professionals as it continues uniting the global cancer community.

JK: When 2020-2021 ASCO president Dr. Lori J. Pierce announced her presidential theme—“Equity: Every Patient. Every Day. Everywhere.”—what did that mean for Conquer Cancer?

SB: With Dr. Pierce’s leadership and her call to action, Conquer Cancer is supporting ASCO’s commitment to not just elevate health equity as an issue but to be a leader in promoting equitable cancer care across the global cancer community.

Conquer Cancer’s mission and vision have always been inclusive. Fund research worldwide. Create a world free from the fear of cancer. While we’re always intentional with every dollar donors provide us, Dr. Pierce is challenging us to make certain we’re using our resources to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion.

JK: What are Conquer Cancer’s priorities in working to achieve equity for underserved patients with cancer?

SB: We’re growing our resources to continue providing what patients and care providers most need. For patients, that means designating additional funding streams to explore therapies specific to age groups, races, ethnicities, and underserved populations, and expanding access to clinical trials to fully represent the population of patients with cancer. That also means supporting the expansion and diversification of the oncology workforce to make it more likely for people around the world to have doctors who look like them, who live where they live, who share their cultural background and practices. Our Grants & Awards programs support research and career development from medical school to professorships, and we’re expanding the opportunities we offer to medical students and residents in hopes of creating a diverse workforce.

And, frankly, all of these are obvious things to do. As we leverage ASCO’s decades of commitment to address health disparities, we will be guided by ASCO’s Health Equity Committee to take a more nuanced look at where we can direct our time and resources to have a meaningful and enduring impact on health equity. We are in a unique position as ASCO’s foundation to mobilize the oncology community—from health care professionals and health care companies, to foundations and individuals—to support the programs, education, and research needed to advance equity in care for every patient.

JK: Are donors requesting more opportunities to direct gifts toward health disparities?

SB: Yes. The frustration from 2020—the pandemic, the racial injustice—is being answered by people who want to make a difference, who want to make an impact. We are seeing it from health care companies and foundations, as well as individual donors, who want their gifts designated for areas of health and workforce disparities. Our donors don’t see this is as a one-time way to be part of a movement. Our donors have been designating funds for underserved communities, understudied diseases, and researchers from underrepresented populations in medicine for many years, just as you did in 2019 when you funded a Young Investigator Award.

JK: What can ASCO members do to help Conquer Cancer advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in cancer care and research?

SB: ASCO members can share, connect, and give.

When I am talking about Conquer Cancer to friends and family, I often say, “We’re the best organization you’ve never heard of.” It’s critical to share with people the important work we’re doing and the valuable resources we support.

Connect your fellows and your students to our Grants & Awards Program so they know about our funding opportunities and we can expand our applicant base. Likewise, connect yourself within our communities—groups like Women Who Conquer Cancer and the Conquer Cancer Council.

The most valuable thing you can do is give and encourage giving. Without donor support, there are no resources, there are no programs, and there are no grants to fund the research and ensure the next, more diverse generation of physician-scientists.

JK: Beyond ASCO priorities like clinical trial access and increasing diversity in the oncology workforce, what will be the long-term focus to continue elevating equity, diversity, and inclusion issues?

SB: Knowledge and commitment. Just as knowledge conquers cancer, it can conquer the disparities we face. We will keep our promise to continue learning and educating others, by asking the tough questions, by offering and accepting the uncomfortable answers. As an organization, we’ve had and will continue to have those conversations.

Importantly, we hear from ASCO members and ASCO staff: Do not lose this focus when the headlines change.

Our history demonstrates an ever-increasing commitment to improve care for every cancer, every patient, everywhere, and in 2021 we are more dedicated than ever to our mission to provide high-quality, equitable cancer care to all.

Make a gift that supports a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future for people affected by cancer.

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