Reflecting on COVID-19 and Providing Reliable Information to People with Cancer, with Merry Jennifer Markham, MD, FACP, FASCO

July 21, 2022
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As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cancer.Net developed several resources for people with cancer, including its post “Coronavirus and COVID-19: What People With Cancer Need to Know,” written by Dr. Merry Jennifer Markham. After publishing this post on March 3, 2020, Dr. Markham reviewed and updated the post for 650 days straight to make sure people with cancer were receiving the most up-to-date and relevant information about COVID-19. In this podcast, ASCO’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Julie Gralow talks with Dr. Markham about her role in creating information for people with cancer throughout the pandemic, how the pandemic has shifted her perspective, and where she sees the future of the pandemic response headed. 



ASCO: You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the voice of the world's oncology professionals. 

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guests’ statements on this podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. Cancer research discussed in this podcast is ongoing, so data described here may change as research progresses. 

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it confusion, fear, and uncertainty for most people around the globe. These feelings were often heightened for people with cancer as they experienced disruptions or changes in care, such as following greater safety precautions at their treatment centers, having their appointments shifted to televisits, and facing delays in recommended cancer screenings. 

As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cancer.Net developed several resources for people with cancer, including its post “Coronavirus and COVID-19: What People With Cancer Need to Know,” written by Dr. Merry Jennifer Markham. After publishing this post on March 3, 2020, Dr. Markham reviewed and updated the post for 650 days straight to make sure people with cancer were receiving the most up-to-date and relevant information about COVID-19. The post went on to receive the Award of Distinction from the eHealthcare Awards in the Best COVID-19 Pandemic Related Communications category and was translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Arabic.

In this podcast, ASCO’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Julie Gralow talks with Dr. Markham about her role in creating information for people with cancer throughout the pandemic, how the pandemic has shifted her perspective, and where she sees the future of the pandemic response headed. 

Dr. Gralow: Hello. I'm Dr. Julie Gralow, ASCO's Chief Medical Officer. Today, I'm talking with Dr. Merry Jennifer Markham, an ASCO volunteer and the Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Gynecologic Cancers. Cancer.Net is the patient information website of ASCO. Dr. Markham is also chief of the University of Florida, Division of Hematology and Oncology, a clinical professor in the University of Florida College of Medicine, and the associate director for medical affairs at the University of Florida Health Cancer Center.

Dr. Markham played a key role in ensuring that ASCO provides up-to-date information about COVID-19 for patients, survivors, and caregivers through Cancer.Net. Since March 2020, she devoted a remarkable amount of time and energy to this endeavor, including a stretch of 650 straight days of reviewing and updating our patient information about coronavirus. Wow. That's true dedication, Merry Jennifer. So I would like to kick it off to you, Merry Jennifer. First of all, thank you so much for everything you've done during these past couple of years in keeping our Cancer.Net website up to date for patients during these incredibly challenging times. I'm looking forward to having a conversation with you about all of this.

Dr. Markham: Thank you so much. It's been an honor and a pleasure. And the Cancer.Net team has been just fantastic to work with.

Dr. Gralow: Great. Glad to hear it. So Merry Jennifer, when you suggested that ASCO provide some patient-focused content on COVID and cancer, did you think we'd still be talking about this 2 years later?

Dr. Markham: Oh, I had no idea what to expect. No. I think I, like many of us, thought that this would be a very time-limited event and maybe by the Christmas time of 2020, that we would be done. We were all, of course, disappointed to learn that that was not how a pandemic plays out, but I definitely had no idea what my one email to the group would lead to.

Dr. Gralow: What do you remember about March of 2020?

Dr. Markham: It was a really scary time and a very uncertain time. None of us really knew what was going to come. We were watching how the pandemic or just the viral infection was playing out at the time in other countries, but really, we're not sure what was going to happen to our patients. And I was coming off a stint, I believe - the timing is a bit of a blur - on the communications committee for ASCO. And communications is something that I am passionate about, cancer communication with patients and with other colleagues. And I recall being in clinic and answering questions from patients. And really, it felt like there needed to be some broader level of communication that our patients could refer to you but also colleagues and people around the world. That's what I remember. And I remember reaching out and saying, "Hey, I wonder if maybe ASCO should do something." I didn't intend to volunteer myself to do something, but somebody needed to jump in, and I was ready.

Dr. Gralow: Well, I was still practicing at the time, and I know all the different questions that we were getting. It was such a confusing time. We didn't have information. It was changing on a daily basis. I'm impressed that you thought that we were going to be dealing with this maybe even until the end of 2020 because I was thinking, "Oh, 3 or 4 weeks. We can all quarantine for 3 or 4 weeks. Right?" And here we are more than 2 years later. So you worked on the content for 650 days straight. I mean, every single day for 650 days, you looked to make sure that what we had on there was accurate, and now we backed off a little. But you're still looking at the content a couple of times a week. How has that level of focus on COVID-19 affected your perception and experience of the pandemic?

Dr. Markham In the very beginning, the content was really updated daily. I think something was changing on a daily basis. And so it became part of my morning habit, first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee if I had time for that, to read whatever was happening in the news that day and just paying attention to where we were headed, knowing that there would be changes. In the beginning, there was not enough masks, so we weren't recommending everyone “Go out and buy surgical masks." And then the policies changed on that as we had plenty of masks and then, of course, vaccines and so on and so forth.

I think I felt, like many people, a loss of control when the pandemic happened. Right? I think that so many people felt the sense of loss and the sense of uncertainty. And it reminded me actually of what patients with cancer probably experience with a new diagnosis, the sense of loss and uncertainty for what the future holds. And I think like many of my patients who really want to dive in deep to the research of their own cancer and treatment course, it actually gave me a sense of comfort to delve deep into the facts of what we were learning on a daily basis about COVID. Having that knowledge at my fingertips and being able to put it into layman's terms really did help me, I think, not become emotionally tied up in all of the sadness of the pandemic and the loss of travel and the loss of being able to be with loved ones. So for me, it was a little bit of a coping mechanism, I think. I didn't realize that at the time, but in hindsight, I really think it was.

Dr. Gralow: So becoming a true expert in COVID and cancer was your coping mechanism. That's interesting because you were the leading authority here on what everyone was recommending. Do you have any particular moments, good or bad, that really stand out for you from those early days?

Dr. Markham: I think what stands out the most is we focus so much on science as practitioners of oncology and in these health professions and as scientists. And I remember being very disappointed and hurt whenever I encountered someone, whether it was a patient or a family member or a colleague or-- not colleague but acquaintance, perhaps, who didn't believe that this was a real thing. And I was really pouring my heart and soul into the work of providing patient education on this and trying to do the same in my own clinic and with my own family members. And to have people brush it off as a non-thing, it was hurtful, and it was also just very disappointing as a physician and scientist.

Dr. Gralow: And things were changing fast. Now, you yourself ended up with a COVID diagnosis at the end of 2021. Did that personal experience change the way you viewed ASCO's roles in supporting people with cancer throughout the pandemic?

Dr. Markham: So I was minimally symptomatic, which was really thanks to science and thanks to the vaccines and having boosters. So number 1, it was very mild. But like many people who have a diagnosis that's new to them, I was nervous. And so I did feel reassured, though, because I had a pretty good understanding of what was happening and what was going to happen, and I knew that I was protected because of the vaccine and boosters. But it can be a scary time, and I think that it just gave me a little more insight into what people who I've taken care of, who have cancer and then have experienced a COVID diagnosis, have felt. Unlike my patients with cancer, I'm not immunocompromised, so I felt pretty comfortable. But it can certainly be scary. And I did have that appreciation for-- not just the infection but having to isolate myself from my family, I think that really was the hardest part and the inconvenience of it.

Dr. Gralow: Well, I'm glad you just had a mild case, and hopefully, you have no residual symptoms. But it is interesting when you have, either within your family or yourself, a personal confrontation, either with COVID or with cancer, that it gives you a different perspective.

Dr. Markham: Absolutely. That is so true.

Dr. Gralow: So we're now 2-plus years into the pandemic. I know you don't have a crystal ball, and I know we've thought we were on the downswing and things picked up again. But where do you see this going? I mean, not just COVID itself but public health, immunizations, the whole pandemic awareness. Where do you see this going in the U.S. and worldwide? We've had the flu coming around every season. We didn't wear masks. We have vaccines. Not everybody got vaccines. What are we going to learn from all of this, and where do you see the future will be?

Dr. Markham: I think that one of the major learning experiences that all of us who are in medicine and health care and those in health communication and health policy-- what we have learned is that science communication really does matter, and it's hard to do it in a very rapid-fire pace and do it well. But I think we've all seen examples of how communication around factual data and removing misinformation is actually critical. I would love to see this pandemic go away, but I think that what we've seen over the last couple of years with the new variants coming out, it's clear that we're not going to have 99% of our population vaccinated. I think, really, on all fronts, vaccination uptake is not that high. So there will be people who are either unable or unwilling or who will defer getting vaccinated. And unfortunately, this will lead to these waves of new variants coming like the current variant that is circulating. But I do think that there is hope.

One of the reasons that a lot of my patients delayed getting vaccines in the beginning-- many of mine did, but there were some holdouts who really were not comfortable getting vaccinated. There is now more time. And so we do have more safety data, and we know that the vaccinations are safe against-- the COVID vaccinations are safe. So I think that I have seen more patients in those last 6 months become vaccinated. They were holdouts initially, and now more are doing it. And I'm hopeful that this trend will continue. I do think there are pockets where we are seeing vaccination rates start to pick up again. I don't know. I'm happy to keep reviewing content, though, and updating. The updates have become a little less frequent, which is great. I love when our focus on updating is really on new therapies and new vaccines and new vaccine sequences and schedules. So I think we're in a fairly stable place - knock on wood - right now.

Dr. Gralow: In our immunocompromised population, which is only a subset of all of our patients with cancer, do you think we'll see more mask wearing in the future?

Dr. Markham: I do. I do think that actually this is one area where we, as a culture, have probably begun to shift in the United States and especially among people who have a personal risk or a family member with a risk factor that might increase their chances of severe COVID. Just a personal anecdote. I traveled internationally for the first time since COVID a couple of weeks ago, and my entire family, all vaccinated and boosted, wore our masks, as it's the federal requirement to do so on planes. However, we landed in an international location where that was not a requirement. None of us wanted to take our masks off. We felt more comfortable, and I saw a lot of people who also remained masked even though it was not a requirement. So I do think there's a shift in this culture. I'm as tired of the masks as anyone, but it really does have a protective measure and is, I think, important, especially for our patients who have a weakened immune system or other medical risk factors for developing COVID or other infectious diseases.

Dr. Gralow: So kind of in closing, you did such tremendous work for ASCO, for our patients with these regular updates. But what's the experience meant to you as an ASCO member and a member of the oncology community?

Dr. Markham: I joined ASCO when I was a fellow, and I was taught the importance of our organization by my faculty members and my mentors. And as soon as I realized I could, I volunteered to serve on ASCO committees and task forces. And it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career. And it's something that I encourage junior faculty and fellows to do as well. ASCO is such a leading voice. It is the leading voice for oncology care globally. And just the opportunity to contribute something back has really meant the world to me. It's been an honor to be able to do this work.

Dr. Gralow: Well, on behalf of ASCO, I want to thank you again for all of your commitment to this. We're thrilled to have you as a volunteer, and we will continue to call on you as a volunteer. Really appreciate that. And I do know that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of what ASCO was posting, a lot of the webinars we had, etc., were being used around the world. And you contributed majorly to that as well. So for that, I thank you. And I thank all of our listeners. This has been Julie Gralow and Merry Jennifer Markham talking about our Cancer.Net COVID-19 information that Merry Jennifer tirelessly led daily, essentially, for a couple of years. So thank you so much for that. It's been great talking to you.

Dr. Markham: Thank you.

ASCO: Thank you, Dr. Gralow and Dr. Markham. Find all of Cancer.Net’s resources on COVID-19 and cancer at 

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