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Read All About It: Talking to the Press at the Annual Meeting

Michael Paul Link, MD

24 Jun 2011 9:21 AM

One of the responsibilities of the ASCO President and President-Elect at the Annual Meeting is to serve as spokespersons for the Society during interviews with the press about the exciting science presented in the course of the Meeting. This year, I participated in six or seven interview sessions. I had some Reuters interviews, and I also did about five interview sessions during the morning satellite. You sit in a chair with a camera on you and different news stations call in to do segments.

Most of the reporters were interested in specific highlights of the Meeting. The stories that seemed to get the most play in the press were a breast cancer prevention study and some melanoma abstracts. Because I’m a pediatrician, I told the press—whether they asked or not—about the highlights related to pediatric cancer that were presented in the Plenary Session.

I did an interesting interview with Reuters on an unexpected topic. There were at least three abstracts presented that related to the economics of oncology—not how much it costs, necessarily, but the impact on patients. One abstract related to the increased incidence of filing for bankruptcy among patients who were diagnosed with cancer. It was a fairly devastating account. A second abstract discussed the fact that for many of the oral medications, which are so expensive or at least have very high co-pays, there were a substantial number of patients who did not pick up their medications at the pharmacy. The prescriptions were written but the patients weren’t taking their medicines. This was, I thought, a devastating indictment of how we care for patients. The third abstract found that during the recent recession, the incidence of treatment for cancer went down. What this logically means is that, in the worst case, patients were avoiding therapy for already-diagnosed cancers, and also that they weren’t getting recommended screening tests, which means their cancers are not detected at an early stage. For example, patients don’t get mammograms when they can afford it or they’re uninsured.

To me, these three abstracts related not just to cancer care specifically, but to the entire health care system in the United States and just how broken it is. [ASCO member and American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer] Otis Brawley said something similar in the same Reuters article.

During the interview the issue of drug shortages came up. This is a topic which is emerging as a threat to the practice of oncology and to the welfare of our patients. A further interview with me led to yet another Reuters story, about the drug shortage. The shortage of cancer drugs is, surprisingly, not on the radar screens of Washington. Continued attention by the media may help us gain some traction among those who can help solve this important problem for cancer care.

Several of the abstracts that were reported in the media are in fields that are not my specialty. Because these abstracts had been highlighted for me, I was able to take time to get up to speed in terms of their impact. More importantly, I had the privilege of doing some of the interviews with [ASCO Immediate Past President] George Sledge. Watching him give the insights into why these abstracts were important, specifically to him and to medical oncologists, helped me a lot in terms of what an appropriate reaction would be, even though they weren’t in my area of expertise. That was a good training session that I had with George!

During interviews, one has to field questions that appear to be out of the blue, so learning to think on the spot or to say that you are not the best person to talk to about that is an important skill. Something that was heartening is that ASCO as an organization is amazing in terms of providing preparation in the form of media training and talking points. It enables you to talk intelligently about things that are not in your comfort zone.

Being on the Board of Directors and an officer of ASCO gives you access to outstanding people who are the real experts on these abstracts. The abstracts were discussed during the Scientific Program Committee Meeting in March, so I got to hear why the experts on these topics thought these abstracts were important and newsworthy. It is not difficult to stash those insights away for the future. It’s all part of the privilege of working with such smart people who volunteer at ASCO.


Annual Meeting Media Highlights
Breakthrough science from the 2011 ASCO Annual Meeting was widely reported in major media outlets. Articles highlighting the recent progress in cancer research and treatment include:

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Michael Paul Link, MD