Merck extends Couric partnership for online series about cancer during COVID-19

Merck's new online oncology series is taking on a timely topic: COVID-19. Host and well-known journalist Katie Couric began the series recently with the interview of a young woman diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer just before the pandemic began shutting down New York.

In March, Sarah Sanders, 35, had to deal with not only the shock of triple-negative breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes as her city began shutting down, but also a positive test for a BRCA gene mutation, which increases risks for breast and other types of cancer.

In the video, Sanders describes her experiences, from the special car service she takes alone to the hospital for treatment and being isolated in her studio apartment with her mom. She still has more treatments and a double mastectomy surgery this summer to go through, but as she reminds viewers, she is more than just a cancer patient during COVID-19.

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New installments in the “Katie Couric Explores: Cancer During COVID-19” series will debut in the coming weeks with different people and perspectives, Claire Mulhearn, Merck’s associate vice president in global communications, said in an email interview.

The idea for the series was born after COVID-19 struck, as Merck had to shift gears away from its plans for cancer efforts that were no longer relevant. Mulhearn said the company teamed with Couric to create for patients “meaningful content that mattered today—in this moment—as their concerns began to change. Together, we felt it was important to show a glimpse into the real lives and new challenges that COVID-19 brings to people with cancer—the added concerns and worries—on top of an already devastating diagnosis of cancer.”

Couric joined Merck’s cancer awareness effort “Your Cancer Game Plan” a year ago through the “With Love, Me” effort, in which patients and caregivers recount their stories and offer advice to themselves, looking back to the time when they were diagnosed.

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Merck also plans to rebrand and evolve the “Your Cancer Game Plan” platform this month to include additional support and resources, as well as “to promote open and honest conversation amongst patients, advocates and the broader cancer community,” Mulhearn said.

Merck's PD-1 immuno-oncology drug Keytruda continues to roll across the oncology landscape and accumulate indications; it's now in 15 different types of cancer. Sales in 2019 reached $11.1 billion, and while the potential for COVID-19 to dampen revenue looms, Keytruda sales for the first quarter of 2020 were $3.3 billion, up 45% year over year.