New recommendations to advance racial equity, ways to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer care, and ongoing strategies for preventing and controlling HPV-associated cancers led the conversation at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®) 2021 Virtual Annual Conference March 18-20.
More than 1,300 attendees from across the United States and more than 40 countries met online to learn about updates to the NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) and new research in the field. Sessions explored supportive care and ways to help survivors return to work, updates on best practices, and the most contemporary treatments for multiple malignancies including breast cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, gynecologic cancers, and head and neck cancers.
Despite a year-long pandemic that made both research and patient care more challenging, NCCN's panels of experts from leading academic cancer centers developed continuous updates to the NCCN Guidelines that helped oncology professionals worldwide maintain service to patients with best practices under evolving circumstances."
Robert W. Carlson, MD, Chief Executive Officer, National Comprehensive Cancer Network
"At the same time, it was a year of reckoning with the United States' history of racial inequity, in which NCCN and the greater healthcare community have been called with renewed urgency to develop ways to make quality cancer care more accessible and equitable."
Preventing and controlling HPV-associated cancers
The first of three keynote panels addressed the importance of vaccination, screening, public and professional education, and system/process improvement in preventing cancers common in people infected with HPV (human papillomavirus).
"HPV vaccination will have a significant impact on reducing cancer incidence in the U.S., as well as globally," said Wui-Jin Koh, MD, Chief Medical Officer, NCCN, who chaired the panel. "We know that vaccination against HPV can prevent most cases of cervical cancer, for example, yet many countries still have low vaccination rates, and misinformation about vaccines is rampant. Beyond cervical cancer, HPV is also causative in many cancers of the anus, vulvar, vagina, penis, and oropharynx. Strategies to increase vaccination and otherwise control HPV are vital to cancer prevention."
Elevating racial equity
At the conference, representatives from the Elevating Cancer Equity Working Group--convened by NCCN along with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) and the National Minority Quality Forum (NMQF)--discussed detailed recommendations for reducing racial disparities in cancer care. People of color--especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people--often have higher cancer rates and yet are medically underserved, experiencing later diagnosis and worse outcomes.
"These disparities result from systemic inequality and bias in access and care delivery," commented Dr. Carlson. "Oncology professionals have a responsibility to respond, and help ensure their patients have access to guideline-adherent cancer care."
Presenters Lisa A. Lacasse, MBA, President, ACS CAN and Elizabeth Harrington, Partner, Public Opinion Strategies (POS) took a deeper look at a recent poll commissioned by the working group that found 63% of African American and 67% of Latinx cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers reported negative interactions with their care team, compared with 43% of white patients.
The presentation also included a real-time poll of the audience regarding the importance and feasibility of implementing the recommendations for improving equity in cancer care. In many cases, attendees reported that they already have these policies in place.
"This is where the rubber meets the road. You can have great ideas, but how they're operationalized is critical to any success. It feels big, but certainly people are doing it," said Robert Winn, MD, Director, Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center who co-chaired the working group along with fellow presenter, Shonta Chambers, MSW, EVP Health Equity Initiatives and Community Engagement, Patient Advocate Foundation.
Adapting care in a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic forced oncology professionals to adapt in order to provide ongoing care for cancer patients--especially those at high risk. The final keynote session, "Effects of the Pandemic on Cancer Care/Future Directions of Cancer Care," reviewed the COVID-related difficulties cancer centers have faced, how they adapted, and the possibility of permanent shifts to incorporate more telemedicine.
"In a moment of crisis, it is important for us to meet the crisis but then to gain something that we carry forward," said Timothy Kubal, MD, MBA, Moffitt Cancer Center, Co-Chair, NCCN Best Practices Committee.
"As healthcare providers, I think we are realizing that many of the things that we have held sacred aren't as important to the patient as we thought. The in-person visit, full physical exam and on-site labs, imaging and chemotherapy are the way things have been done for a generation, but telemedicine challenges many aspects of such tradition.
We all thought this would be terrible for the patient but as it turns out, in most cases, it's okay. We need to carry this learning forward to better meet the needs of our patient population and to drive innovation in healthcare delivery.
They say the only thing that matters in real estate is 'location, location, location.' But, for our patients, what really matters is, 'What location works for you?'"
The NCCN Annual Conference convenes oncology professionals--physicians, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, payers, advocates, and policymakers--to advance cancer treatment and patient care by exploring emerging therapies and addressing the latest issues and updates. The virtual conference featured more than 35 educational sessions with interactive polling, and moderator-facilitated Q&A. The conference also featured more than 90 research posters and more than 50 virtual interactive exhibits.
The online conference platform will allow attendees to continue accessing all sessions until May 19, 2021. At that time, the sessions will be made available as recorded webcasts via the NCCN Continuing Education portal at education.nccn.org, with a clinical synopsis publishing in JNCCN-Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network this summer.