Bringing out the best

Social media and the news these days are full of reports on how some people struggle to fill their days with meaningful activity. This has not been a challenge for HCCC faculty, staff, students and volunteers. The mission of Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center – “to decrease the pain and suffering caused by cancer in Iowa, surrounding communities, and the world through improved cancer prevention and treatment based on three interdependent missions of research, clinical service and education” – is unchanged. Needless to say, our approach to addressing this mission has been impacted significantly. We have adjusted to, and indeed thrived through, this challenge because of the remarkable members of our team.

Through change and uncertainty, the need to provide state-of-the-art, compassionate, personalized care to cancer patients remains. We were able to postpone some of the care we usually provide for a week or a month while adjusting to the changes brought on by the pandemic, but much of the care we provide cannot be delayed. At this point in the pandemic, we are essentially back to full capacity. That is not to say clinic operations are back to normal. The need to practice social distancing for the safety of both patients and staff has required significant changes in day-to-day operations including visitor policy, how we schedule appointments, staff interactions behind the scenes and inclusion of students in the clinic. Our team has shown incredible creativity, flexibility and dedication to our mission during this challenging time as we continue to provide world-class cancer care despite ever-changing new challenges.

Flexibility and creativity have also been required on the research front. We have done our best to keep many cancer clinical trials available for our patients, particularly those that provide access to potential new therapies that are not available otherwise. Clinical research staff adjusted their standard approaches significantly to keep these trials open and safe. Many laboratory researchers have been unable to work in the laboratory but have continued to be productive none-the-less. My own laboratory group continues to meet weekly (virtually) and has remained highly productive. Laboratory staff and students continue to analyze data, scour the literature for new ideas, and plan new experiments. In many ways, this has provided our research teams with a unique opportunity to slow down and think. We are planning for the day, hopefully very soon, when we can get back into the research laboratory (with operations adjusted based on the need for safe social distancing) and pursue the new ideas that have been generated during this unexpected hiatus from the daily pressure of laboratory work.

With respect to our education mission, teaching at the bedside remains a challenge as we seek to limit exposure for our patients, staff and students while also conserving PPE. However, other educational activities have adjusted remarkably well to the new world in which we live. At cancer center grand rounds just last Friday, two young faculty presented research results that came from pilot research grants provided through the HCCC the year before. The conference was held by Zoom, was well attended, and included robust discussion and exchange of ideas.

Finally, I would like to speak about a very important behind the scenes activity. The status of the HCCC as a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center is an honor that needs to be re-earned every five years. By chance, the competitive renewal of our NCI Cancer Center Support Grant, which brings with it this important designation, is due this month. We have been preparing for submission of this huge application for over a year. The HCCC leadership and administrative teams have done the vast majority of the work finalizing this application from their homes. I am confident we have put together what I believe is a superb application because of the skill and commitment of our leadership and administrative teams. They, just like those dedicated to the clinical, research and educational aspects of the HCCC mission, have also shown creativity and flexibility as we used e-mail, Skype and Zoom to prepare and organize the hundreds of individual items required for this grant application. Submission of the Cancer Center Support Grant application is usually followed several months later by a site visit, arranged by the NCI, where experts from around the country come on site to assess the true contributions being made by the cancer center applying for NCI comprehensive cancer center designation. Whether this site visit will take place as usual or be done virtually remains to be seen. Either way, I am sure our team will be up to the task.

In a blog last year entitled “Who you get to work with,” I spoke about selecting a career where you respect the people you work with every day. Little did I know that, just a few months later, I would find myself in a situation where a major crisis would illustrate the importance of this perspective so clearly. The pandemic has brought out the best in the people I get to work with every day. This includes my colleagues who focus on providing cancer care, conducting research, supporting education or working behind the scenes administratively. I thank them for their creativity, teamwork, flexibility and dedication to each other and our mission during this uncertain and challenging time.