Dr. Mark Kris Receives First ASCO Humanitarian Award

Fran Lowry

July 05, 2011

July 5, 2011 — Mark G. Kris, MD, chief of the thoracic oncology service and the William and Joy Ruane Chair in Thoracic Oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, prefers to take his vacations in places that have been devastated by earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes.

He goes to help rebuild houses and lives.

Dr. Mark G. Kris, center

"In a way," he told Medscape Medical News, "it's an extension of the work I do here in my role as an oncologist. Obviously, cancer patients want to be cured and we work as hard as we can to do that. But sometimes cure is not possible; then it becomes a matter of maintaining the quality of that life," he said in an interview.

Whether it's doing the relief work or doing oncology, it's the same story.

"It's the same deal down in Louisiana or Mississippi. People want their homes and their lives back, and the quicker you can help them do that, the sooner they can get in their comfort zone again, living the life that they've chosen to live. So whether it's doing the relief work or doing oncology, it's the same story."

To honor his caring spirit, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has given Dr. Kris the inaugural ASCO Humanitarian Award for his dedication and compassion in his professional work and his volunteer efforts.

The award was bestowed at the opening session of the ASCO 2011 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

A statement released by ASCO describes Dr. Kris as a pioneer in the advancement of lung cancer research and treatment who has demonstrated "exemplary patient care, including making house calls to visit those at the end of their lives."

He also sits on the medical advisory boards of 2 nonprofit organizations — Uniting Against Lung Cancer and CancerCare — and has even run marathons to benefit cancer patients.

"All of the work that Dr. Kris does for us at CancerCare is volunteer time on his part. He is somebody who's working very hard as a physician, spending time with his family, and at the same time, makes time to volunteer here and to help us," said Helen H. Miller, LCSW, chief executive officer of CancerCare, in a statement.

Medscape Medical News asked Dr. Kris how he manages to find the time in his busy career to assist with humanitarian aid in disaster-stricken areas. Over the past few years, he has built homes for families in Hyde Park, New York with Habitat for Humanity, gone to Costa Rica to build a basketball court and a church, made several trips to assist with earthquake relief in Haiti, and helped with relief efforts in Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

From 2006 and 2010, he made 6 trips to the small bayou town of Dulac, Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Rita and later by Hurricane Gustav.

You make time for the things that are important to you.

"You make time for the things that are important to you. I use my vacation. My wife and my daughter are part of these activities, so it becomes a family vacation and we combine service and time together. It's fun and special to do these things with your family, particularly with your kids. You like to know that your kids have exposure and feel the same kind of need or wish to work in their community and also in a greater community," he said.

Dr. Kris and his family usually do their service as part of a faith-based group. "I'm with the Methodists, actually, but I wouldn't emphasize any one faith organization. They all have the same kind of roles, and it's amazing. You meet people from all over the country. It's pretty inspiring," he said.

He added that he is very proud of his family — wife Mary; daughter Mary Kiernan, 28; and son Robert, 25, who is currently in Dubai, with the US State Department. "He is in the foreign service, and he is serving his country, and yes, I am definitely proud of my kids."

All Kinds of Skills Are Needed

Dr. Kris said he enjoys the change of pace and the chance to do physical work. "You are always learning. No matter what skill you have, you can put it to use. For example, a huge need is a driver. If you're on a construction site and you need some kind of tool, you can save valuable construction time if you have someone who can drive to the Lowes or Home Depot, which can be hours away, instead of having a skilled worker go.

"Another terrible need is for a travel agent. Volunteers in general have to pay their own expenses; going down to the Gulf, we had to pay our own airfare. If you have a travel agent who knows how to get the best deals, it really facilitates the project.

"Cooks are also needed. Somebody has to cook. If you have somebody who is a contractor, while they may want to spend the afternoon cooking, they could be directing the other members of the team and moving things along instead of cooking. People shouldn't feel intimidated about volunteering if they can't finish sheet rock or whatever, there's always something that can be done," he said.

The last thing needed is a listener, he added.

"People who live through a disaster need and want to tell their story and they need people to just sit there and listen. That's an extremely important part of this. It's . . the rebuilding of people's lives as well as their homes, and home is so much more than the structure. People lose their sense of safety and their sense of comfort and they need to be brought back to that safe place. Part of helping is listening while they talk. Even someone who has no construction skills or driving skills, but who can just sit there and listen and be part of a team, is really important."

What's His Next "Vacation"?

"I'll likely go on another Methodist trip. We have an ongoing program in Haiti. We also have trips to North Carolina, and then there is Alabama, and now Missouri, where the tornados have been," Dr. Kris said.

Wherever he goes, the link between his disaster aid work and his cancer care work remains strong. "Whether it's doing relief work or doing oncology, it's the same story, but the mechanics are quite different. Here at work I'm sort of the general contractor — I figure out what the treatment is, I organize the rest of the team, and that kind of stuff. It's a lot more thought than physical work. Whereas down there, I'm not the architect that builds the house, I'm helping to put something back without the responsibility of doing the whole thing. But the bottom line is the same. It's helping people get their lives back."

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