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ASCO in Action Podcast

Jul 31, 2020

ASCO President Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, FASCO, joins ASCO CEO Dr. Clifford A. Hudis in the latest ASCO in Action podcast to discuss how her childhood inspired her to become an oncologist and how the theme of her presidential year, “Equity: Every Patient. Every Day. Everywhere.” is more important than ever as the country responds to a healthcare pandemic that is disproportionately impacting people of color.

“Every patient, no matter who they are, deserves high-quality care and every patient has the right to equitable care,” says Dr. Pierce. “We have to get to the root causes to understand the barriers that patients face if we’re going to really make a difference, so it’s important to me that equity be front and center of everything that we do."

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Disclaimer: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Welcome to this ASCO in Action podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network. This is a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content and offering enriching insights into the world of cancer care. You can find all of the shows, including this one, at 

The ASCO in Action Podcast is ASCO's series where we explore policy and practice issues that impact oncologists, the entire cancer care delivery team, and the individuals we care for--people with cancer. My name is Dr. Clifford Hudis. And I'm the CEO of ASCO, as well as the host of the ASCO in Action Podcast series. 

Today I'm really pleased to be joined by Dr. Lori J. Pierce, ASCO's president for the 2020-2021 academic year. Dr. Pierce is a practicing radiation oncologist. She is a professor and vice provost for academic and faculty affairs at the University of Michigan. And she is the director of the Michigan Radiation Oncology Quality Consortium. 

Dr. Pierce, thank you so much for joining me for this podcast. My hope today is that our conversation will give our listeners a better idea of who you are, what and who has had important impact and influence over your life, and what your professional career and path as a radiation oncologist has looked like. I also hope to highlight what you hope to accomplish during your presidential year. 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Thank you, Dr. Hudis. I'm glad to join you today. Before we get started, I just want to note that I have no relevant financial relationships to disclose. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Now before we start to discuss the details of your presidential theme and your current role at ASCO, I think our listeners will be really interested to learn how your childhood inspired you to become a radiation oncologist. And I hasten to add ASCO staff were really excited by the stories that you shared when you gave an all staff presentation a few weeks back. So, can you talk a little bit about your childhood summers in North Carolina, how they were informative for you, and how they inspired your career? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Sure. I'm happy to. So first of all, I'm originally from Washington D.C. But my father's family, which is quite large, is from a small town in North Carolina called Ahoskie. And that's in the north eastern part of the state, maybe about 30 minutes just beyond Virginia. And I have tons of relatives. I used to love to go visit them every summer because I would get spoiled. 

But that was in the south in the '60s. And in retrospect there was significant segregation there. And I again would have a great time going to visit my family. But I noticed--and it was something you noticed and you put in the back of your head--that when there were health care issues, there was one doc that my family could use. And he was great. Doc Weaver, he did it all. 

He was the one who would come to the homes, deliver babies, take care of all the medical issues--he did at all. And so, people just revered him because he always seemed to help people. And that stuck in my mind. That was actually when the first times that I thought about possibly becoming a physician because he always seemed to make people better. 

But then also the experience as I got older made me acutely aware that there was indeed segregation in Ahoskie and that there was inequity in care. Even Doc Weaver seemed to be a great doctor for someone--I was 5 or 6 at the time. And to my eyes, he was great. Clearly there weren't choices in terms of care. And that was my first exposure to inequity in terms of health care. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well that's interesting, of course. And obviously we're going to circle back to this. But before we get to that, one of the things that I always point out to Nancy Daly--who's the CEO of Conquer Cancer--is that all roads lead through Philadelphia in medicine. You proved that true, right? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Yes. So, I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I got my degree in engineering. I should say at that time I clearly was planning to go into medicine. But I was going to go into radiology. And so biomedical engineering was a great area to pursue. I majored in biomedical engineering and minored in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. 

And so, then I applied to Duke for medical school. I was accepted. But I decided to defer my admission. And so, I worked for a while before going into medicine. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well that's interesting. And when you deferred your admission, was this because you had something you wanted to do, or you needed to essentially to save money in order to go to medical school? What did you do in that break? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Yeah. So, it was very much the latter. My parents were absolutely wonderful people. And they focused very much on education from my sister and me--for us to go to the best possible colleges. My parents never had an opportunity to go to college. And so, they very much wanted the best colleges for my sister, Karen, and I. 

But we had a ground rule in our family. And that was that if my sister or I decided to go and pursue education beyond undergraduate degree that we would need to pay for that. And so, I knew that. And even though I was very fortunate to get quite a bit of scholarship from Duke, there was still going to be a lot that I was going to have to pay. 

And so, I made a decision, instead of taking out a lot of loans, that I was actually going to work. At that time--probably now as well--being an engineer brought a very good salary. And so, I elected to defer my admission for medical school and take the offer that gave me the most money. 

And that ended up being a job in Round Rock, Texas, which is just outside of Austin. And I have to tell you this was back in 1980. And it's not at all what Round Rock is like now. I hear Round Rock--since industry is there now--is really just a suburb of Austin. But at that time, Round Rock was a sleepy town I-35 from Austin. So, I can live in Austin and work in Round Rock. 

And it was a very interesting experience. I worked for McNeil Consumer Products. I was the second shift supervisor. And it was an interesting time because here I was fresh out of undergrad, green behind the ears, and an African-American woman, as a supervisor to people who were generally in their 40s through 60s, most of whom had never been out of the state of Texas, and you look at that and you say, oh my gosh. How did I get here? Why am I here? Why did I decide to do this? 

And you think about how different people are. But when you start to work with people, you realize that there are common threads. And you find those common denominators. And you learn that even though we may look different on the outside, there are a lot of things that are similar in the inside. 

And I think the lessons that I learned as that second shift supervisor have served me well in medicine because you can always find a common denominator with patients, even when apparently at first look, it looks like you're very, very different. So, they were very good lessons I think that I learned that I wouldn't have done had I not chosen that path. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: So, I think that some of what you learned will no doubt pop up as we talk in greater detail now about your presidential theme. Let me just start by saying for me personally, this is one of the highlights of the year for me each year, when our president comes on board in a sense and begins to present their vision for their theme and what they hope to see us achieve over the year they serve as president. 

And it's amazing because of course the wide range of background experiences as well as aspirations that different people bring. And you certainly I think came into this with a very clear vision of equity for every patient every day everywhere. Can you expand I think--I wouldn't say speak on this because you've already begun to touch on it--but can you expand on what you were hoping to see accomplished through this theme and what motivated you to focus on it specifically in your role as ASCO president? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: A multitude of things. It's hard to really pick out one. But certainly, I think we all are acutely aware of the different outcomes for people of color. In terms of almost any industry you look at, the outcomes are less favorable, significantly so for people of color. And you look at those numbers and you know that there are reasons to explain this. 

And it's not just biology, which is what a lot of people propose. And quite often it's not biology at all, that clearly these patients are lower socioeconomic status. The majority of these patients are poor. Late diagnoses, inability to receive treatment, transportation issues--there's a whole myriad of reasons why the outcomes are different. And you look at that, and you say, every patient no matter who they are, deserves high quality care. And every patient has the right to equitable care. 

And we have to get to the root causes to understand the barriers that patients face if we're going to really make a difference. And so, it's important to me that equity be front and center in everything we do. And ASCO again has done so much. That's at the heart of ASCO, of making sure the message is there that every patient deserves high quality care. 

But I wanted to actually make equity our theme. Equity has actually never been the theme at ASCO. So, I want to actually call it out and make it our theme for the year. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well the timing of course in many ways is really quite remarkable. I know a lot of people would use the word fortuitous. And the truth is that just means in a sense coincidental. But that's what it was. 

In early 2020 certainly nobody could have anticipated that we would be facing, nationally and globally, a pandemic that would so disproportionately impact people of color or that there would be a tipping point through yet another brutal crime against a black American and that this would so completely capture the nation's attention. And I have to say broad support. Can you speak a little bit more therefore about the timing of these events and your theme and why this is so important for us to act at this point? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: I think you summed it up actually very nicely. Again, the theme was chosen before the pandemic. It was just the theme that I felt was the appropriate theme at this point in ASCO. And then the pandemic happened. And we saw how it disproportionately affected those who had comorbidities, those who were the essential workers, so those people who didn't have the luxury to work from home. Often the people who had a lot of comorbidities and the ones who were most at risk for contracting the virus and subsequently dying from the virus. 

And I actually take a little bit of pride in that I'm from the state of Michigan. And Michigan was actually one of the first states that started reporting the COVID data by race and ethnicity. So, it was actually one of the first states that made the observation that there were cohorts of patients that had a significantly worse outcome. And so, the country--the world learned that people of color did more poorly with COVID. 

It's not enough to say, OK, these people do poorly with this. We then have to dissect the reasons why and provide explanations, so we get to the root of the problem. So that's COVID. And then we saw that more of the senseless deaths that we've seen in the past, but we've seen even more of as of late. 

And maybe that's because we now have cell phones. And we see things a lot more--things that have probably been going on for quite a while. We know that these have been going on, but maybe not to the degree that we know now. And we have to acknowledge there's structural racism. And so, once we acknowledge that, then the next thing is we have to initiate steps that eradicate it. And we have to initiate mandatory steps to eradicate it. 

So, then you come back to the theme--equity, every patient, every day, everywhere. And I should have said in everything that we do. We see these horrors playing out. And we can look at that and say--maybe not the pandemic, but the senseless murders--we've been here before. We've been here with the protests. We've seen all that before. And nothing has changed. 

I am cautiously optimistic that this time is different, that the world is in a different place. And this is no longer acceptable. And people are not going to look away, that they are going to stare this down. And they are going to create change. 

And so, I am I'm optimistic that this will not just be another set of deaths of poor people at the hands of police, that the world is awake now, and change will come. And so, the theme of equity is perhaps more impactful now than it ever would have been in the past. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: I'm going to just switch gears here a little bit, and speaking from personal experience, both warn you and challenge you that the year as ASCO president goes really quickly. And given that and given the lofty ambition, is there any way that you would be able to commit to what you actually want to see get done? What box can we actually check off during this term? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: I like the way you phrased that. I think back--there was an interview that I did when I was President-elect--and someone said what do I want my legacy to be? And I pushed back on that because you can't create a legacy in a year. It goes by very, very quickly. And so, I think the question is, what do you think you can realistically accomplish in a year? 

And the answer that I gave to them is going to be similar to the answer that I give to you. And that is you want to use your time and take a great organization like ASCO and perhaps make it even greater. And I think that is a very real goal here because again, I am building on a strong foundation of a lot of what ASCO already has in place. 

Equity is at the heart of everything ASCO does. You know this. You're the CEO. You know this. And so ASCO has stood up so many programs in their various divisions that relate and are based on equity of care. But ASCO by being large and being complicated can have some of these programs in silos. And if I can help to connect the dots, if you will, and make it almost a seamless presentation of equity, that will be a major strength. 

For example, one of the things that I want to do--and people have told me I will not be successful--others have tried and were not successful--and that was to embed equity in our annual meeting. As you know what we've typically done is have sessions that are dedicated for equity, which is great. And they've been fabulous sessions and wonderful speakers. 

The problem is a lot of our members have not taken advantage of those opportunities. And it's not because people don't want to know about equity. I'm sure it's just they're trying to fit so much in a short amount of time because there's so much going on at the same time at ASCO, trying to learn all the latest therapies. And they just don't have time for the equity sessions. 

So, I get that. So, a strategy would be to embed equity in the sessions. And again, I've been told that this has been tried before and has failed. That doesn't deter me. That doesn't dissuade me from moving forward with this and being optimistic that it will succeed this time, again, because we're in a different time now. I think the world has awakened. And equity is very important. So, it is very high up on people's checklist when they go to ASCO. 

And then second, I'm the president of ASCO. So, I hope to use both of those to gently push this idea so that we really can capture more of equity in all of the sessions, or the appropriate sessions at the annual meeting. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well I've got to say--speaking of connecting the dots, which was the image you used--there is one I think area of progress that's already taking shape. And that's this exciting new collaboration between ASCO and the Association of Community Cancer Centers, or ACCC. This is focusing on increasing participation of both racial and ethnic minority populations in cancer research, which to your point, is something that we have been focusing on for years. But we really need somebody to move the needle. Can you talk a little bit about this initiative and what you hope to see formed and accomplished through this? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Sure. So, I am very happy--actually, largely thanks to you for putting Randy Oyer, who is the president of ACCC, and I in contact with one another--to set up this collaboration. So, we all know that if you look at people of color--let's say African Americans and Hispanics--and look at their participation in clinical trials, it is much lower than their representation as cancer patients. If you look at most the numbers, maybe it's around 3% to 5% of patients in the clinical trials are Hispanic or African American, whereas those two groups make up about roughly 15% of patients with cancer. So, there's clearly a disconnect in the representation of those ethnicities and races in our clinical trials. 

And so many have tried to come up with strategies to improve the enrollment. And we are working together--ACCC and ASCO--we're putting together a very robust steering committee of individuals who have thought long and hard about accrual of minorities under clinical trials. And we are sending out an RFI to request ideas from people in ASCO and ACCC who also have been thinking long and hard about this issue for their strategies--their suggestions for strategies for how we can improve accrual. 

And then the steering committee will review what we take in as well as our own thoughts and then try one or two of these strategies within TAPUR. As you know TAPUR is the trial with an ASCO. TAPUR is completely run by ASCO. So, we have the flexibility to be able to try out new things. It's almost like a laboratory, if you will, for new ideas. 

And if we see that there are one or two strategies that do seem to be successful in terms of increasing the uptake of minorities, these will be strategies that we can suggest to some of the cooperative groups to employ in their trial. So, it's an exciting time to use TAPUR as a laboratory to try out new strategies. And I am very grateful for the opportunity to be able to work with Randy and all of the infrastructure that ASCO has to make this a reality. So, we're working on that. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well that's great. This is not to put you on the spot. And there may not be any more. But is there anything else that you want to make sure ASCO members hear or take away from this conversation? What's the one message that you think that they should receive from our conversation? 

Dr. Lori Pierce: I guess we're all in this together. The beauty of ASCO is from member engagement. We just have fabulous members in terms of their motivation to make lives better for our patients. And so, I guess I would ask if there are any additional ideas that our members have that will help us move the needle even more and even more quickly, please reach out to me. 

I would love to hear people's thoughts. We're always open for new concepts. And it takes a village. And I just would hope people would feel comfortable providing ideas for us to go forward. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: Well that's great. Thank you, Dr. Pierce, for taking the time to speak with me today. I'm really grateful to you for this. And I'm excited as well for the year ahead, both for you and for all of us at ASCO. 

Dr. Lori Pierce: Thank you so much. 

Dr. Clifford Hudis: I want to remind listeners that you can visit to learn more about the ASCO ACCC initiative. And even better that's where you can submit ideas that will help address the issues related to longstanding barriers to diversity in cancer clinical trials. We want to hear from you. 

Until next time, thank you for listening to this ASCO in Action podcast. And if you enjoyed what you heard today, please don't forget to give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. And while you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. 

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