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Meet Your ASCO President-Elect, Dr. Howard A. “Skip” Burris

By Amanda Narod, ASCO Communications

Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, a long-time member and volunteer, began his role as ASCO president-elect in June 2018. An ASCO member for nearly 30 years, Dr. Burris’ service to the Society is extensive. His volunteer roles include member of the ASCO Board of Directors and ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation Board of Directors, chair of the Cancer Research Committee, the Nominating Committee, the Research Community Forum Council, and co-chair of the Ethics Committee. His committee memberships have included the Cancer Education, Scientific Program, Audit, and Sponsorship Committees, among others. Dr. Burris was named a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO) in 2010.

Dr. Burris established the first community-based phase I drug development program in Nashville in 1997, which became Sarah Cannon Research Institute. He led the first-in-human studies for many now-approved drugs that have changed the standard of care for several types of cancers.

Dr. Burris is president of clinical operations and chief medical officer for Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare. He is an associate of Tennessee Oncology, PLLC, where he practices medical oncology. Dr. Burris completed his undergraduate education at the United States Military Academy at West Point, his medical degree at the University of South Alabama, and his internal medicine residency and oncology fellowship at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

What are you most excited about as you prepare to assume the role of ASCO president in 2019?

HB: ASCO is perfectly positioned to be the voice of oncology for all those dedicated to preventing, researching, treating, and fighting to eradicate cancer. ASCO has the ability to connect oncology professionals from all over the globe. With that in mind, I think it is important for ASCO to continue to serve as the source for truth in our specialty.

What led to your interest in serving in an ASCO leadership role?

HB: I’ve always been drawn to leadership positions. I think it stems from my time spent at the military academy. I’ve adopted that leader mindset throughout the course of my career, particularly in starting the phase I drug development program at Sarah Cannon.

The ASCO mission resonates with me. Bringing together the hearts and minds of the individuals who work in the field of oncology is the key to advancing therapies and improving the lives of our patients. If ASCO continues to stay true to its mission, I have no doubt we will have a global impact for years to come.

Is there an issue or program that you are particularly passionate about that you are hoping to address as part of your leadership term?

HB: Clinical research is essential to advancing cancer care, and there is no organization better than ASCO to take on these challenges. I hope to continue building on the great work of ASCO’s current president, Dr. Monica M. Bertagnolli, and its immediate past president, Dr. Bruce E. Johnson, to help accelerate the development of new drugs and treatments. Part of that is helping patients enroll in clinical trials because, as we all know, enrollment rates are far too low.

The oncology community is far bigger than only those who work to develop new treatments. For example, oncology caregivers need to be better supported, and we need additional support for the nearly 20 million cancer survivors expected by 2025. I’m eager to explore this more as we look at the oncology workforce—nurses are going to play a pivotal role as we develop and broaden our workforce.

When we think about precision medicine, there are opportunities for encouraging the molecular profiling of patients, supporting reimbursement, and sharing data to increase our knowledge base.

Talk about the importance of mentoring. Who has helped shaped your career, and what does mentoring mean to you?

HB: There are so many colleagues and friends that I could talk about. Dr. Daniel Von Hoff was a great mentor and colleague in my early career. As I moved into leadership roles, I’ve sought out strong physician executives with which to collaborate, including people like ASCO CEO Dr. Clifford A. Hudis. Our Sarah Cannon CEO, Dee Anna Smith, has set a wonderful example for me and our other physician executives. They have helped me define what it means to be a physician executive: leading by example, delegating, and collaborating with those who work with you and for you.

Nothing gives me more pride that seeing some of my junior colleagues on the ASCO stage presenting important research, including Dr. David Spigel and Dr. Melissa Johnson, to name a few.

You’re credited with bringing drug development trials into community settings. In an increasingly demanding and changing practice environment, what do you say to those practices that want to get involved in research?

HB: Creating an infrastructure to support patients is a critical part of the equation. Participation and enrollment are vital, but practices need to commit wholeheartedly. There are resources available and many ways to get involved, such as exploring outcomes programs, clinical registries, and utilizing tools from ASCO’s Research Community Forum. I’d encourage practices to look at what is already available in their community and explore your hospital affiliation or local universities. Programs such as the National Cancer Institute’s Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) can connect you to colleagues who are conducting research in community settings. It is important to remember that patients are at the center of research. The driving force behind research must be the mindset that it is a collaboration with and an investment in our patients.

What is one career achievement you are most proud of?

HB: It’s thrilling to have worked with patients to develop compounds and new treatments that are now common brand names in oncology. I’m incredibly grateful for being able to work with patients. I recently attended the 65th birthday of a former patient. About 10 years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and wasn’t sure she wanted to move forward with further treatment. With encouragement, she elected to participate in a clinical trial of T-DM1, now widely utilized to treat breast cancer. Well, here we are 10 years later, and she saw her daughters get married and now has 3 grandchildren. It’s the individual patients and their personal stories that make all the work worth it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

HB: Finding a balance can be very hard. What has helped me throughout the course of my career is getting to know my colleagues on a personal level. When you really know your colleagues, it helps you understand priorities and boundaries when it comes to work and family life. I think this is particularly important for me in working with some of my younger colleagues. It can start with a simple question such as, “How’d your son do in the baseball game last night?” Not only does it help form stronger relationships, but in a practical sense, it develops an understanding that we need to rely on one another for work coverage.

In my day-to-day life, I am a planner. It sounds simple, but I use my calendar to block out personal time. I have two sons, and I always make sure to put their activities on my calendar. I also prioritize time with my wife, Karen. Whether it’s making a dinner reservation or something else, I make sure I put everything on my calendar to protect that time.

Can you share something about yourself that cannot be found on your CV?

HB: I am an avid golfer, and it helps me relax and enjoy time with my friends and family. I am also a huge dog lover, and we have a Wheaten Terrier named Olivia. She’s the definition of unconditional love. I actually think dogs can help remind us as clinicians to care for patients with kindness.