Aug 26, 2015
By Rachna T. Shroff, MD
MD Anderson Cancer Center
As a specialist in gastrointestinal medical oncology, I have always relished the chance to speak at international conferences where the mutual goal is to eradicate cancer and to build collaborations with other organizations to that end. In May 2015, I was given the opportunity to speak at the 3rd National Cancer Congress of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, a session that was cosponsored by ASCO. The symposium was the largest one to date in Uzbekistan and brought in thought-leaders from all over the world. I was honored to be an invited speaker with a fellow specialist in gastrointestinal malignancies, Dr. Nevena Damjanov from the University of Pennsylvania.
From the moment I landed for my 24-hour whirlwind trip to Tashkent, I was greeted with warmth, hospitality, and professionalism. The conference was seamlessly organized to cover a breadth of topics in cancer, all perfectly translated into a variety of languages for the international crowd. The opening session was given to a standing room–only group, and thereafter, sessions were broken down by disease site. Dr. Damjanov and I presented updates in hepatobiliary malignancies, while other speakers provided multidisciplinary updates on a variety of cancers. The lunch break for invited presenters included a multicourse meal with traditional Uzbek foods and drinks. Every conversation began and ended with celebratory toasts, which made for an incredibly festive lunch, during which we got to know the thought-leaders in oncology in Uzbekistan. The afternoon sessions were as riveting as the morning ones and I learned a great deal from each speaker.
After the afternoon session was complete, Dr. Damjanov and I were treated to a personal tour of the city. As we jetted through the streets of Tashkent, we learned all about the history of the Silk Road, and I lamented not having extra time to explore the surrounding cities near Tashkent that were part of this route. We first visited an outdoor market where I sampled Uzbek pistachios and picked out mementos to take home to my children. Our guide, a trainee with an interest in oncology who had been graciously taking us around all day, gifted us with traditional Uzbek hats for our husbands. Next, we went to one of the older mosques in the city, with its associated school, and toured the beautiful courtyard. From there, off the beaten path, we found a small home with a tandoor oven from which hot, fresh bread was being made. The people working over the sweltering oven generously gave us a delicious loaf of bread to try.
Once our quick tour was complete, we were taken to the evening banquet for the 3rd National Cancer Congress of Uzbekistan, where all conference attendees were given a chance to unwind after an intense day. This event was quite honestly the highlight of my trip. The mood inside was light, celebratory, and full of laughter. Live musical and dance performances were sprinkled through the evening, with opportunities for us all to get up and dance with each other. This was networking in the most casual and fun way I have experienced to date! It was a great chance to discuss some of the pivotal research we had heard about all day in a casual setting, thereby building future collaborations. Again, we were stuffed full of Uzbek delights with endless appetizers, meat dishes, and Uzbek plov, a traditional rice dish. When my jet lag set in and my eyes started to feel heavy, our hosts whisked us away to the dance floor to burn off all that I had eaten over the course of the day, and I was recharged with a second wind.
As I left for the airport the next morning, I was sad to be leaving so soon, as I felt I had only gotten a glimpse into a truly fascinating country with a rich culture. More importantly, although I had been invited to speak about biliary tract cancers, my area of specialty, I felt that I had learned far more from this group of oncologists than I had taught. I truly appreciated the opportunity to participate in this joint session between ASCO and the National Cancer Congress of Uzbekistan and I hope this becomes an annual event whereby ASCO speakers can continue to be part of the in-depth program so that we can continue to learn from each other.
Dr. Shroff obtained her B.S. in Biochemistry from Brown University in 2000 before pursuing her medical degree at Jefferson Medical College. She completed her internal medicine residency and chief residency at Washington University in St. Louis before moving to Houston for her medical oncology training at MD Anderson Cancer Center. She joined the MD Anderson faculty in Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology in 2010 as an Assistant Professor. Her clinical and research interests focus on developing novel therapies for pancreatic and biliary tract cancers and she has led a number of clinical trials in this area. She is extensively published in the fields of pancreaticobiliary tumors and has given multiple platform presentations nationally and internationally on her work.