Kathy Giusti: War on coronavirus can teach us how to more effectively wage war on cancer

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The calls keep coming. Patients are scared. Not just from the imminent threat of the coronavirus, but from its impact on their longer-term enemy – cancer.

Some cancer patients are delaying stem cell transplants and now sit anxiously in a holding pattern. Others are newly diagnosed while their spouse listens in on FaceTime.

A senior executive managing the coronavirus-caused disease COVID-19 while awaiting his CAR T-cell therapy trial prays nothing goes wrong. As he hangs up, his words will never leave me: “Kathy, if I get through this, will there be something else on the other side?”

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The calls aren’t new. I have taken them for decades. What’s different is not knowing the answers.

The war on cancer is on hold. Trials investigating novel drugs are stalled and new ones are even further delayed. If cancer patients can stay out of the hospital they must. If they can delay treatment, they should. If they can switch to oral therapy, they should do it now.

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But as I watch the 24-hour news cycle, I don’t feel fear and resignation. I see solutions. Because the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us all what is truly needed to cure disease. It’s putting research on speed dial. It’s forcing collaborations never imagined.

The urgency of the killer coronavirus tells us we are not invincible. It’s reminding every health care leader what can be done when the stats are staring you in the face and millions are losing jobs and loved ones. We have to figure this out – now.

Yes, COVID-19 spreads faster and kills faster than cancer. But these diseases also share similarities: they kill the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, those with underlying conditions. The answer to preventing them involves drastic changes in human behavior. Changes that, with a shared sense of urgency, are suddenly within our reach.

The good news is that COVID-19 is forcing significant changes in our health care system that can help us cure cancer. We need to leverage these changes against cancer, with the same level of urgency as soon as it is safe to do so. If we do, we can rebound from this crisis with a V-shaped curve on the path toward cures. In myeloma, in cancer, in many fatal diseases.

Here are three critical ways COVID-19 can aid in finding cures for cancer.

Testing and sharing data

Data is king. The more we have, the better. But it also needs to be shareable.

The coronavirus made it necessary to share localized data across counties, states and countries. Let’s use the same systems to build a national database for cancer, with biospecimens, clinical data, genomic data, immune data and longitudinal follow up, and sophisticated analytics.

This database should be open to all researchers to learn who is truly at risk and who must be treated aggressively. And let’s create easy-to-access noninvasive testing, so people can be tested at scale without checking into a hospital.

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Speeding clinical trials and expanding use of off-label drugs

When you know a vaccine will take at least 12 to 18 months to develop, therapeutics are your greatest hope. We have now seen that is feasible to open a clinical trial in two weeks if bureaucracy is lifted and patients are willing and accessible.

We now know we can incorporate telemedicine and alternate assessments into care. And regulators have now shown they can ease constraints when an off-label drug might be the only option.

Changing human behavior

Never before have we seen consumers listen and act on such a universal scale. They have done their best to prevent getting the disease and to protect others.

Let’s make sure people have the information they need to fight cancer – the data, the risk factors, how to prevent them – and not just on websites, but in the news, through our schools, from our political leaders.

While we know what reducing our weight, staying out of the sun, stopping smoking, and getting tested early will do to reduce cancer, people need to know and feel the urgency.

Urgency drives people to do things they know are important faster. If cancer statistics were staring us in the eye 24/7, it might accelerate everything – collaboration, new business models, funding, consumers “stepping up” on a universal scale.

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Let’s not allow the changes of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused more than 233,000 confirmed deaths around the world so far, to be forgotten. Let’s apply the lessons we have learned with the same sense of urgency to the millions of people who still die of cancer every year.

When the war on COVID-19 is won, let’s be ready to reset the war on cancer with new tools and new urgency. And let’s win the war on cancer as we will win the war on COVID-19.