Dealing with cancer, disparities and a pandemic all at once

Katie Couric and Merck’s Dr. Julie Gerberding shine a light on living with cancer during the pandemic and the challenges compounded by disparities across both diseases.

September 23, 2020

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As COVID-19 began disrupting the lives of many people around the world in the spring of 2020, Kim B. felt safe and lucky. Kim, her husband and two sons were under quarantine together, in their Long Island, New York home, and were taking the necessary precautions to keep their family healthy.

But what Kim didn’t know was that this was the calm before a storm that would upend their lives.

Kim’s husband had recently become very ill, revealing a late-stage cancer diagnosis. It was while caring for him and her family during this pandemic – an already difficult challenge – that Kim made her own devastating discovery.

As part of a series on the impact of COVID-19 on patients living with cancer, Kim spoke with media personality Katie Couric.

Katie Couric

Facing the unthinkable

“I had noticed something different with my breast,” she explained. “I have always been very proactive with my breast care because I have a pretty bad family history.”

But after a mammogram, a sonogram and a biopsy, Kim’s darkest fear became a reality: she was diagnosed with triple-negative inflammatory breast cancer.

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“I thought I knew a lot about breast cancer, but I didn’t know what this one was. And I think that is something that needs to be told,” Kim said.

She wishes she had known that this type of breast cancer affects nearly twice as many black women as it does their white counterparts. “If I had known, maybe I would have asked my doctor if I could come in every three months for an exam.”

All of this was unfolding amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which also disproportionately affects communities of color, and a public reckoning with systemic racism in society.

Bruce and Kim's graduation in 1988
Bruce and Kim at home with their two boys

When cancer and a pandemic collide

Dr. Karen Winkfield, director of the Office of Cancer Health Equity at Wake Forest Baptist Health, joined the conversation with Katie and Merck Chief Patient Officer Dr. Julie Gerberding to discuss the ways COVID-19, race and cancer can intersect.

“A cancer diagnosis – it’s scary. That in and of itself is scary, but then layer on top of that fear about contracting the coronavirus and how that can impact your care going forward. We can see this is really highlighting some of those longstanding disparities, those health disparities that have existed in those communities,” said Dr. Winkfield.

 Julie also offered her perspective on the situation at hand.

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“I think there are three intersecting crises. The COVID pandemic is bad enough, then the incredible systematic racism in our society, and then the recognition of who is impacted by both of these issues and the incredible socioeconomic disparities.”

Watch this incredible perspective about a watershed moment for all of these important issues, with viewpoints from Katie Couric, Julie, and Dr. Winkfield. Kim remains hopeful for her husband and herself. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I have faith there is something bigger to this story. We started this journey 35 years ago in high school and I’m not ready to let it go.”