publication date: Jun. 5, 2020

Here’s what cancer groups say about police brutality and health disparities


National Institutes of Health

Francis S. Collins, NIH director:

I am writing on this troubling day to share with you my personal sense of heartbreak and devastation at the events surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And this tragic event has too many echoes of what has come before. As we witness repeated episodes of violence perpetrated against our African American brothers and sisters, it is impossible not to experience a deep sense of outrage, disbelief, and grief.

Though by birth and life course I am undeniably a privileged white male, I cannot let these horrific acts go by without denouncing the underlying and ongoing bias and prejudice that fuels them. Such actions are a crime against humanity. They are utterly antithetical to NIH’s commitment to find ways to reduce suffering and promote health—for everyone.

I am reaching out to you today to share the grief and anger that I know you also feel, but also to reaffirm our common resolve. It will not be helpful to sanitize the facts or underestimate the challenges before us as a society. Four hundred years after the introduction of the sin of slavery in this country, there is still a tremendous amount of difficult work to do. It is hard not to feel helpless in the face of circumstances like this. But both as private citizens and as members of this great institution, I call on myself and everyone at NIH to do what we can—to ensure that we foster a culture of inclusion, equity, and respect for one another, and that justice will endure.

As leaders in health research, it is our duty to continually uncover new ways to improve people’s lives and keep them free from harm and disease. One of our most important callings is to address the health disparities that prevent many from experiencing the full and complete life they hope for and deserve. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright and deeply distressing light on just how much health inequity persists in our society. We need to look at this unflinchingly, and embrace that challenge, enlisting the vision of the talent all around us. We are surrounded by deeply committed colleagues who have not only studied health disparities and racial violence, they have lived them. We’re reliable, capable, and resilient because of our many races, ethnicities, cultures, faiths, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, and backgrounds. Our diversification fuels our creativity and drives innovation. I embrace that—now, more than ever.

COVID-19 has regrettably kept us apart from one another. I long to be with all of you now. We could have an amazing face to face town meeting right now. I could learn a lot from you. We might even sing together. But despite physical distancing, we are still a community that cares about each other. I encourage you to reach out, lend an ear, and provide a virtual shoulder to those in need. Let’s show our collective strength by remaining allies and advocates for one another. Although the recent headlines make us want to look away in disgust and disappointment, let us look to each other for strength and hope, and recommit ourselves to our shared goals of making the world a better place—for everyone.

Though I am heartbroken by the injustice of this dark moment, and deeply troubled about the increasing threat of violent responses, now is the time for us to come together as we serve together—across the NIH community. Our work has never been more critical. Our concern for each other has never been more important.

In the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dear friends, I wish you peace, health, vision, and safety.


National Cancer Institute

Norman E. Sharpless, NCI director:

When I was 13, I remember watching a televised assault on a group of black and hispanic protesters by members of the KKK and neo-Nazis in my hometown of Greensboro, NC. Five people were killed in this massacre that occurred in broad daylight, on TV, and with the foreknowledge of local police, and not a single person ever went to jail for these indisputably racist murders. The year was 1979. Since then, I have told myself that things are getting better; and in truth, they have been getting better, but as recent events have proven, not quickly enough.

Forty-two years later, I am sickened by the disregard for the lives—including those of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—of African Americans, a group that continues to be marginalized in this country. I am outraged by the manner in which laudable, non-violent protests against these acts have been disrupted by those with a very different agenda, resulting in rioting and further injury and death. For me, and perhaps for you, these events make it hard to concentrate on our task at hand: fulfilling the mission of the NCI.

During these unprecedented times, I do take comfort in knowing that our mission includes and benefits everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic status, education, geographic location or access to care. The events taking place today only strengthen our resolve to help eliminate these injustices. I truly hope that each and every one of you understands the value and importance of your work in achieving our mission during this time of unrest and pandemic. Work on our mission not only helps patients with cancer, but over the long run, it makes America a healthier country for everyone.

Thank you so much for your efforts and the remarkable work you’re doing.


FDA Oncology Center of Excellence

Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence and acting director of the Office of Oncologic Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research:

Earlier this week, a small group of staff met with me (virtually) to discuss our response to recent events. We felt it was important not to remain silent at this time, given the disturbing, painful, and distressing events of the past 2 weeks, and to decry the life-threatening impact of racism on the health and wellbeing of our country.

Collectively, we decided to issue a tweet, signed by me, affirming our commitment to diversity and disavowal of discrimination in any form. You received by email a copy of the tweet yesterday.


I also want to address all of you here at FDA, who work with us to advance products to diagnose and treat patients with cancer, and reiterate our commitment to a culture of inclusion:

The Oncology Center of Excellence stands in solidarity with patients with cancer and all communities experiencing the distress and pain borne out of the events of the past few weeks. We uniformly disavow all forms of discrimination and injustice. We are proud of—and better for—our diverse backgrounds, and reaffirm our commitment to executing our mission by supporting equity and inclusion in our workplace, in healthcare, and in drug development.

To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” As we look ahead, I implore you not to be discouraged by these events but to instead have a renewed belief that we can individually and collectively do our parts to build a better society.

In addition to promoting equity and inclusiveness in our work with each other at the FDA, the OCE has many opportunities to promote these values in our local and professional communities. We have listed a sampling of these activities and initiatives below. While these initiatives may not be directly related to the painful and sometimes deadly experiences that Blacks and other marginalized members of our society face much too often, they reflect our resolve and efforts to proactively address inequities in our unique professional setting. But, we can and should do more. If you wish to join these efforts or have any ideas of your own, I encourage you to please contact me, your supervisors, or any of the OCE Associate Directors.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the incidents of racism, this has been a very trying several months for all of us. I encourage you to lean on each other for support during this time. I am also available to you. If you are experiencing mental distress, or just need someone to talk to, please take advantage of resources for counseling and other referrals available through the federal Employee Assistance Program or phone 1-800-222-0364, which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Please be sure to take good care of yourself and your family.


American Society of Clinical Oncology

Lori J. Pierce, ASCO president:

I hope this message finds you safe and well. Months ago when I defined a theme for my year as ASCO President, “Equity: Every Patient. Every Day. Everywhere,” I never imagined we would experience a healthcare pandemic that would disproportionally impact people of color. Nor could I know this would be the moment when yet another brutal crime against an African American would so capture the nation’s attention and bring long-simmering pain to the surface.

This has been a difficult week, on top of a difficult past few months. But even after the protests conclude and the pandemic is contained, we will still be left with deep-seated issues of racial, social, and economic inequity in America and other parts of the world.

We know that racism undermines public health, and we know it deeply affects patients with cancer. Racial and ethnic minorities face poorer outcomes, are less frequently enrolled in clinical trials, and are less likely to be offered palliative care, genetic testing, and other critical care. Specifically, African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest length of survival of any racial ethnic group for most cancers.

We cannot tolerate these inequities any longer. We must commit the same energy and focus we pour into conquering cancer to addressing systemic issues that affect the health of people of color in our country.

Since its founding in 1964, ASCO has been dedicated to equal access to the highest quality cancer care for everyone, no matter who they are, where they live, or the color of their skin. But this moment calls on us to do more, and we must work together to enact meaningful change.

The oncology community must confront and address complex forces and systems that have created disparities in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and research. At ASCO, we are embedding a health equity lens into all of our programs. More than ever, we are committed to using our collective voices to advocate for policies that improve access to insurance coverage and affordable care for all patients.

We are also committed to building on our work that aims to cultivate a diverse oncology workforce and support people of color as they advance in their careers. Later this summer, ASCO’s Health Equity Committee will issue concrete recommendations to achieve health equity in the near and long term. To be clear, this is just a start, and there is a lot of hard work ahead of us. We know that meaningful change requires confronting our own prejudices and biases – and we must begin the difficult work of addressing them for the benefit of our colleagues, our patients, and our communities.

I am so proud of the hope and promise that ASCO represents and I am committed to leading our Society forward at this particular moment in our history. We are stronger when we work together, united in purpose to conquer cancer—for every patient, every day, everywhere. As always, ASCO is here to support you as you go about your important work caring for patients with cancer. In the days and weeks ahead, we welcome your ideas and participation in advancing this dialogue throughout ASCO and promoting long overdue equity in all aspects of cancer care and research.


American Association for Cancer Research

Elaine R. Mardis, AACR president; Antoni Ribas, AACR president-elect; David A. Tuveson, AACR president-elect designate; Elizabeth M. Jaffee, immediate past president; William N. Hait, treasurer and past president; Margaret Foti, chief executive officer; and on behalf of the AACR Board of Directors, John D. Carpten, chair, Minorities in Cancer Research Council:

AACR is outraged and saddened about the pervasive racism and social injustices toward African Americans in our country and all people of color around the world. As a scientific organization focused on the conquest of cancer whose core values include equality, diversity, and inclusion, we stand in solidarity in denouncing the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others before them whose lives have been taken because of racism. Along with our AACR members, patient advocates, patients with cancer and cancer survivors, staff members, and all others around the world, we wish to voice our anguish and deep frustration with the systemic injustices that have led to significant social and health inequities among racial and ethnic minorities. We deplore discrimination, racism, and racial injustice in any form, including the long-standing disenfranchisement of Black communities.

Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States and around the world continue to experience health care inequities, including a disproportionate burden of cancer. As a glaring example, African Americans have the highest overall cancer mortality rates compared to all other racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. These stark health inequities have drawn renewed attention and concern in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has also disproportionately impacted communities of color. For example, African Americans account for 13% of the U.S. population, but about 23% of the deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Research is driving tremendous progress against cancer and other human diseases, but the grim reality is that these advances have not benefited everyone equally. Progress has come too slowly for people of color, and the monumental cost of health disparities in terms of health care inequities, premature deaths, and the impact on communities must be immediately addressed.

The AACR will continue to actively promote high-quality, impactful science and policies that are focused on eliminating cancer disparities in racial and ethnic minorities. To accomplish this vitally important goal, we will continue to foster advances against cancer and COVID-19 disparities through our state-of-the-art conferences and scientific journals and publications. Further, we will champion the work of minority and other researchers, physicians, and advocates who are working tirelessly to eradicate health disparities and to prevent and cure cancer in all populations.

The AACR is deeply committed to realizing the vision of social justice and equality for all Black and other racial and ethnic minorities, both nationally and globally. We stand in solidarity against racial discrimination and inequality, and will work with our diverse membership to help create a world that achieves equity, unity, and justice for all.


American Society for Radiation Oncology

Theodore L. DeWeese, chair of the ASTRO Board of Directors:

Since March, we have all faced the enormous challenge of managing patients during the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. The resulting health effects of this virus have disproportionately affected African American, Latino and low income communities. The pandemic has resulted in not only the loss of life and health, but has also ravaged global economies, leaving our poorest citizens most vulnerable. Finally, we have seen attempts by some to blame Asian American citizens and immigrants for this virus because of its link to Asia.

As challenging as the viral pandemic has been, the unnecessary death of Mr. George Floyd in Minnesota illuminates another formidable crisis that links our social and health care systems. Specifically, racial injustice remains pervasive in the United States and around the world. We must confront the reality that people of color, particularly African Americans, are at a higher risk of death because of endemic poverty, poor access to high quality education and healthy nutrition and inequities in the health care system, including the lack of optimal support systems and safety nets.

ASTRO is dedicated to diversity and inclusion as a core value of our Strategic Plan. This essential principle transcends the notion of solely being applicable to our members. It is our duty as physicians to oppose racial injustice of any kind and to work peacefully and purposefully to address those wrongs within our power. This is an inviolable part of our social contract as physicians.

As a community of physicians and educators, ASTRO is committed to embracing the ethics of equal treatment for all. As the largest professional medical society for radiation oncologists, we have a voice and an obligation to impact society through our work and our decisions. Our collective voice can help drive the change we seek when we speak out loudly against any form of racial injustice, including the most virulent form, health disparities based on race. As Dr. King once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.

We are challenged today by events that may seem out of our control. Yet, I am confident that history is on our side. ASTRO members have and will continue to respond at the highest level of our professional oath and the ASTRO Board and I have the greatest admiration for the dedication you demonstrate every day caring for those in need. ASTRO stands in unity with the Council of Medical Specialty Societies and the 800,000 physicians across 45 medical specialties that deplore the negative impact of racism in our nation and of racial inequities in our health care system. Let us reaffirm that ASTRO members stand with all those who seek justice and equality and that we will work to reduce the inequities in our health care system that have been so dramatically highlighted during recent events.


American Cancer Society

Chief Executive Officer Gary Reedy and Chief Operations Officer Kris Kim:

It is almost indescribable to see the deeply felt emotional response across the nation in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and other recent incidents. We are sure we can speak for all of us in saying that we are saddened and distressed, both by the circumstances themselves and the underlying issues that led to them.

We first want to ensure that all of you are safe and doing what you need to do for your physical and emotional well-being. To our black volunteers and staff, we want to say that we are here for you. We recognize the depths of emotions you may be feeling, from sad to fearful to angry. Please take care of yourself and do what you need to do for yourself and your families.

It bears underscoring that the external climate and the issues of systemic injustice have a direct impact on our organization and our work. Diversity is a core value for the American Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; inclusion and equity are critical to our mission. As organizations deeply committed to addressing health disparities, we recognize that health equity cannot be fully achieved without equity in all aspects of American life.

During times like these, we often ask ourselves what we can do to help. As you are considering what you personally can do, remember the important role you play at the American Cancer Society and ACS CAN to ensure we are living – not just talking about, but truly living – our commitment to diversity and inclusion. This is why we have been implementing comprehensive diversity and inclusion plans throughout the Society. It is why we are engaged with CEO Action, the largest CEO-driven organization designed to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It is also why we have embraced CEO Action’s Day of Understanding initiative to help us listen, learn, check our biases, and build the understanding necessary to ensure the American Cancer Society is an environment rooted in dignity and mutual respect. We are planning a virtual Day of Understanding for all staff in the coming weeks to ensure we are providing space to continue the dialogue.

We are proud to work for an organization and with volunteers and staff who are deeply committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity. It has never been more important, and we thank you for living that commitment every day.”


Association of American Cancer Institutes

AACI condemns racism and discrimination. We firmly believe that these intertwined issues must be confronted with a sense of urgency — just as we address cancer and other crises that impact public health.

The senseless and violent deaths of George Floyd and countless other African Americans saddens and angers AACI’s Board of Directors, staff, and cancer center leaders.

As an association comprised of 100 academic and freestanding cancer centers across the United States and in Canada, AACI is dedicated to reducing the burden of cancer through research, treatment, and adocacy — and diversity and inclusion are key to fulfilling our mission. In our role as advocates, it is our duty to seek ways to improve health outcomes for all people.

Recognizing that the burden of cancer falls disproportionately on communities of color—particularly Black communities—AACI is committed to promoting health equity.

Earlier this year, AACI called upon U.S. presidential candidates to build on decades of progress against cancer by increasing access to comprehensive health care and addressing health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities. At our annual conferences, AACI continues to highlight the work of minority researchers and provide sessions on community outreach and engagement and recruiting diverse populations to clinical trials. Moving forward, AACI aims to foster mentor relationships within and across cancer centers to ensure that individuals in leadership roles represent the diverse makeup of our country. But there is still work to do.

We can do better. We must do better. We stand in solidarity with others in the cancer community—as well as citizens across the U.S. and throughout the world—who are working to confront health disparities caused by systemic racial discrimination and all forms of injustice.


National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship

NCCS is saddened and dismayed by the murder of George Floyd and many others who have suffered as a result of racial injustice. We condemn this and support our Black colleagues – survivors, advocates, caregivers, providers, and researchers. We pledge to do our part to fight inequities in the health care system that are systemic and centuries old.

NCCS represents the millions of Americans who live with, through and beyond a cancer diagnosis. But the cancer experience is not the same for everyone. Black Americans with cancer, as well as other people of color, experience greater obstacles to cancer prevention, screening, treatment, and clinical trial participation, as well as a host of other challenges. As a result of these systemic barriers, Black cancer survivors die of cancer at higher rates than other groups. That is unacceptable.

Change starts with each one of us. We’re ready to listen, learn, and take action.


National Breast Cancer Coalition

As an organization of diverse individuals and groups across the country, the National Breast Cancer Coalition knows the power of an informed and activist grassroots movement to effect needed change. We have seen the disparities in the healthcare system and throughout our nation that stem from ignorance and hatred and lead to discrimination, unwarranted fear and unnecessary death and suffering. NBCC’s activism is focused on ending breast cancer for everyone. We will not get there until institutional racism is eliminated. We stand with all activists who are working to achieve that goal.


Flatiron Health

Nat Turner, co-founder and chief executive officer, and Zach Weinberg, co-founder and chief operations officer, Flatiron:

It is more important than ever to step up and to speak out.

We stand with the black community and our black colleagues.

At Flatiron Health, our daily work is to improve lives by learning from the experiences of every cancer patient. We showed how disparities between Black and White cancer patients all but disappeared in states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. We understand how comorbidities, frontline health-worker risks, and limited healthcare access combine to make COVID-19 disproportionately worse among Black Americans.

But recent days bring more harsh, real-time illustrations of how much we all have to learn, and how much more we all have to do, to end the pernicious racism, violence and inequality that are cancers in our society.

We don’t know personally what it’s like to live with the pain that Black Americans experience every day, and we should never pretend that we have the answers. But as leaders of a mission-driven company of 2,500-plus dedicated people, we are committed to actions that drive progress within our company and in our communities.

We promise that we will keep listening and learning. We will do the work to educate ourselves and help each other to be more informed and active advocates and allies to our Black colleagues. And we promise to leverage our platforms and our privileges where they can have the greatest impact.

Flatiron is making corporate and employee-match donations to organizations that address systemic racism and social injustice. Internally, we are opening more dialogues and extending more support and resources to our colleagues.

And today we are standing up to say publicly that recognizing and decrying racism as a moral wrong is not enough. Individually and together, we must all be a force against racism.


Cancer Council Australia

Cancer Council Australia stands with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters in calling out racial inequalities. The evidence is clear: racism leads to poor health outcomes, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing 43% worse cancer outcomes. We are committed to closing the gap on health and will continue to make it our mission to stamp out inequalities and create a future that is healthier for all Australians.

Copyright (c) 2020 The Cancer Letter Inc.