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The American Society of Clinical Oncology honored Hyman B. Muss, MD, FASCO, the Mary Jones Hudson Distinguished Professor of Geriatric Oncology at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, with the 2020 Allen S. Lichter Visionary Leader Award for his career-long dedication to improving the care of older patients with cancer.

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UNC Lineberger’s Hyman B. Muss, MD, FASCO.

The award recognizes an ASCO member whose vision, leadership and inspirational work has had a lasting impact on the field. Muss was to receive the honor and provide a talk at ASCO’s annual meeting in Chicago on May 30. ASCO moved the meeting to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Muss shared his comments on the honor via a video.

“It is a great honor for me to accept the Allen Lichter Visionary Leader Award. It was unexpected, and it is so special and I truly treasure it,” said Muss, who was recruited from the University of Vermont Cancer Center to establish UNC Lineberger’s geriatric oncology program in 2009. “It is a recognition of all the hard work we have done. This is a team effort, and we as a team have shown how to better treat older patients with cancer and to tailor the treatment to the patient and not the patient’s age.”

Muss’ interest in the study and care of cancer in older adults dates back nearly 30 years ago. While on faculty at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, Muss was encouraged by William Hazzard, MD, whom Muss considers to be one of the first and foremost geriatricians, to investigate whether age had any bearing on chemotherapy’s effectiveness in treating women with metastatic breast cancer.

Their research found that women 70 and older, when compared to younger women, experienced similar rates of response, time to disease progression, survival and treatment side effects. Muss and his colleagues submitted their findings to the Journal of the American Medical Association in the spring of 1992, and the paper was published without revisions.

He knew he had found his field of research after the medical community reached out to him to discuss his paper, and he saw demographic studies showed the U.S. population was aging.

Muss said eliminating misconceptions about older adults with cancer is a critical first step to providing them with better care.

“The biggest misconception about caring for older patients with cancer is that people use age to frequently make decisions about care,” Muss said. “It isn’t just doctors. It is also the public. There are vast differences in functional status, social status, cognitive status among older patients of the same chronologic age. You may have two 75-year-old patients with the same diagnosis, but you need to know details about the individual to optimize treatment.”

Muss said the data make it clear why improving how cancer is treated in older people needs to be a high priority in the U.S.: The average age of a cancer diagnosis is 67, and most cancer deaths occur in people who are in their late 60s and early 70s.

“Our treatment of older people with cancer has been basically taken from clinical trials data from younger people,” Muss said. “Older people remain woefully underrepresented on clinical trials. There is a shortage of really good treatment-related data, especially for chemotherapy and radiation therapy, in older patients. This generation of physicians will hopefully do the research to figure out how to provide the best treatment and UNC and our cancer center will continue to play a major role in these efforts.”