Robert Winn, Otis Brawley: “I could have been George Floyd”

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Like a laser, COVID-19 traced the shocking contours of inequality in America’s health system—demonstrating that science and health equity have always been inseparable.

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis upped the stakes, catalyzing a global movement for racial equality (The Cancer Letter, June 12, 2020).

In June, two powerful voices in oncology rose above others, relying on their own experiences to demonstrate that injustice and racism do not vanish after you earn academic honorifics. Such things don’t matter to marauding cops.

In editorials widely shared and acknowledged across oncology, Robert Winn, director of Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center, and Otis Brawley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University—writing as Black men in America—shared their stories of chilling encounters with police.

Their iconic twin editorials were discussed during the second virtual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research on June 26. At a July 17 virtual town hall hosted by NRG Oncology, NCI Director Ned Sharpless emphasized the importance of Brawley and Winn’s words.

“These sorts of conversations, having them more frequently and having them on a continuing basis is an important part of our plans going forward to make sure that we are in a good place for all of our employees,” Sharpless said.

I could have been George Floyd—many times

Reflecting on the cancer of racism

I am almost certain that no other director of an NCI-designated cancer center can claim the distinction of having had a gun pulled on them by police.

I’ve had that experience not once, but twice.

I struggled a great deal in deciding whether to put something together this week in response to the senseless killing of Mr. George Floyd. His untimely death has stirred up a number of complex issues, which I thought I had wrestled under control.

If there is anything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that the boundaries between cancer and non-cancer can be porous. And health disparities come in bunches, bouquets of injustice. And, as a pulmonologist, I hear Floyd’s last words—“I can’t breathe.” Don’t tell me that chokeholds, literal and figurative, are anything other than a public health issue.

And let’s not forget that George Floyd, before being killed by rogue cops, had survived COVID-19.

I am proud of being a director of an outstanding NCI-designated cancer center. I am also proud to have the distinction of being the only African American currently in that position. But as a black male I cannot forget that when I step out from behind my desk, hang up my white coat and get out into the street, I am just a black male—just like George Floyd.

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I could have been George Floyd, too

Official headshot for Otis Brawley, MD, MACP, FASCO, FACE, American Cancer Society Chief Medical and Scientific Officer

Otis W. Brawley, MD, MACP, FASCO, FACE

Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology,

Johns Hopkins University

The past ten days have seen an outpouring of emotions as American society, devastated by the tragic murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, plunges into a crisis of conscience.

Suspicious deaths of blacks at the hands of police have been in the news for years. Floyd’s death wasn’t even the first to be seen on video. Rarely is a policeman held accountable for one of these deaths. Colin Kaepernick conducted a peaceful protest to bring light to this problem. It led to this talented professional football player losing his career and being viciously criticized and called a “son of a bitch” by the President of the United States.

Still, many well-meaning Americans are now shocked and surprised learning of the pervasiveness of mistreatment of blacks by police.

Police mistreatment of blacks—especially black men—is widespread. It is especially bad for young blacks, but no black is exempt.

Even a 40-plus-year-old military officer and physician can get thrown to the ground, handcuffed and questioned at gunpoint for looking suspicious in a nice part of Montgomery County. That would be yours truly a few years ago.

My real offense: standing in the garage of my own home.

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President Joe Biden’s proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health would be a welcome partner to NCI—particularly in conducting large, collaborative clinical investigations, NCI Director Ned Sharpless said.“I think having ARPA-H as part of the NIH is good for the NCI,” Sharpless said April 11 in his remarks at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. “How this would fit with the ongoing efforts in cancer at the NCI is still something to work out.”
Director, Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center