Dr. Veena Shankaran of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington was honored Thursday with a Gold Award for Achievement in Medical Research at Seattle Business magazine’s 2019 Leaders in Health Care Awards banquet at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Seattle.
Shankaran is co-director of the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, or HICOR, an associate professor of medicine at UW and an oncologist who treats patients with gastrointestinal cancers. She is a national leader in studying “financial toxicity” in cancer care — that is, the personal financial problems that are too often a result of cancer treatment. Her research and leadership focus on developing new approaches to measure and mitigate these problems.
Onstage in front of her fellow regional health care innovators, Shankaran remembered the patient who changed the course of her career.
He always dressed up in a tie to come to his appointments at the Chicago clinic where Shankaran worked, she remembered. And his cancer was growing, despite his chemotherapy pills.
He was only taking half the prescribed dose of his medication. His doctors were trying to figure out how they could help him. Was he having memory problems? Did he need a pill box, an alarm reminder? Did he have appropriate support from a caregiver?
Then one day, the man confessed to Shankaran the root of the problem. It wasn’t his memory or the lack of a system to keep track of his pills. “He was spacing out his pills because each prescription cost nearly as much as his Social Security check each month,” she remembered. That was, somehow, a possibility that had never occurred to her or the rest of his medical team.
“And from that day, I knew I wanted to learn more about how and why drugs cost so much. How many other patients are facing the same troubles. How the costs of our medicines affect people’s lives, their children’s, their family members as well,” she said.
Shankaran and her fellow honorees in 11 categories were chosen by a panel of current and former Washington state health care executives, based on their work to improve health care in the state.
Several of her studies have been critical in illustrating the severity of financial toxicity in cancer care. Notably, Shankaran has demonstrated that nearly four out of 10 people in the Puget Sound region with early-stage colon cancers experienced serious financial hardship as a result of their disease. Through a national research network, she is now leading the largest-ever study of its kind to measure how cancer care affects patients financially.
“Our work is leading us, hopefully, to design interventions to help mitigate financial risk in cancer patients,” she said.
Shankaran’s leadership extends throughout and beyond the oncology community. For example, she recently partnered with a Seattle-based nonprofit to develop a financial counseling program for newly diagnosed cancer patients.
In accepting her award, Shankaran said that she is “in a constant state of awe” of the major discoveries in oncology her colleagues have made.
“But then it strikes me that there is something about the research that I’m doing on financial burden and cost of care that resonates with this community and our larger society,” she continued. “Maybe we are reaching the point where the financial concerns of our patients actually matter maybe just as much as the effectiveness of the drugs that my colleagues are developing.
“And that is really thrilling to me — and really gives me hope for the future,” she said.
Susan Keown was a staff editor and writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from 2014-2022 who has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions. Find her on Twitter @sejkeown.