Empty Promises


Leonard Zwelling

         I don’t hear well. I haven’t for a number of years. Many faculty members during my days as a vice president probably attributed this to my not understanding what they were saying, but I understand when I can hear. It got so bad that several years ago the BW had me go to MD Anderson and get my hearing tested. Anderson has a rather advanced Audiology Department with great personnel. Sure enough, it was not a lack of understanding that was my problem, but too many Jefferson Airplane concerts at the Fillmore East in my younger days. I had high frequency hearing loss and needed bilateral hearing aids. They are most helpful. I wished I had gotten them earlier. So do many faculty members, I suspect.

         I get my hearing checked at Anderson every year to make sure it is not further deteriorating and to examine whether my hearing aids need adjusting. Today (August 28) was my day.

         Now admittedly it was the day after the hurricane watch and we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, but I was shocked at how few people were at MD Anderson.

         I was able to park on the third floor and walk right onto the bridge. I was screened, of course, and then went to the clinic and had my visit. Waiting rooms were barren, even at Radiology. The elevators and halls were empty. Where were all the patients? In this lies a tale that perhaps indicates that the cancer centers did not seize the moment of the coronavirus crisis to assure their patients that they should not forego their scheduled visits, screenings, and treatments. Again, a complicating factor is the airlines, as patients come to Anderson from all over the world and many would not or could not get on airplanes during the pandemic. But perhaps Anderson and the other cancer centers needed to do a better job of advertising that they were still open and that the threat from cancer had not dissipated in the era of covid. I am sure that reciprocity agreements could have been worked out among the major cancer centers to assure that MD Anderson patients living in California could get their care locally.

         Right now it’s only anecdotes from friends about patients who put off visits and whose cancer progressed from curable to not curable as they waited at home to return for care in fear of the virus. The National Cancer Institute and all the NCI-designated cancer centers and all the private ones needed to get the message out that the cancer threat has not abated and that doctor visits must be kept, mammogram appointments are still of value, and colonoscopy still saves lives.

         The American oncology community fell down on this one. What I fear now is that the major cancer centers, especially those whose catchment area is the globe, may suffer severe financial hardships and, more importantly, the incidence of fatal cancer may actually reverse its current downward trend. It would be tragic if the cancer death rate exceeds the coronavirus death rate simply because people were too fearful to avail themselves of needed cancer therapy. We shall see what the statistics show in a year or so, but I think we may have made a tactical and strategic error by not reminding America that cancer probably kills more people daily than covid-19, even now. If we have lost ground in that fight because of the virus, that will be another secondary effect of the pandemic that could have been avoided along with many small businesses folding.

Leonard Zwelling