ASCO Celebrates 50 Years of Advancing Progress Against Cancer

Dec 18, 2013

The Society experiences evolutionary growth since its founding in 1964

On April 9, 1964, seven physicians—Drs. Fred J. Ansfield, Harry F. Bisel, Herman H. Freckman, Arnoldus Goudsmit, Robert W. Talley, William Wilson, and Jane C. Wright—assembled for lunch in a small meeting room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. They shared a single purpose: to improve the care of people with cancer.

At the time of their meeting, the landscape of cancer care was ominous. Cancer was widelyregarded as a monolithic, largely
untreatable disease. The limited available therapies were mostly ineffective and caused nearly intolerable toxicity. The stigma of a cancer diagnosis left many patients suffering in silence with little support. Professional medical organizations dealing with cancer were primarily focused on laboratory research, not on the urgent clinical needs and concerns of patients. 

At that meeting, the American Society of Clinical Oncology was founded. 

Together, the founders envisioned “a society of clinical oncology [that] has the potential of contributing greatly to the improved diagnosis, treatment, well-being, and longevity of fellow citizens with neoplastic diseases and to aid in the prevention of many others,” Dr. Goudsmit said in an address later that year.

  • Fifty years and nearly 35,000 members later, ASCO celebrates the anniversary of its founding, the remarkable evolution of the field of oncology and of the Society, and the incredible progress that has been made against cancer throughout history:
  • Federal funding for cancer research has increased from less than $200 million to more than $5 billion annually.
  • The number of drugs available to treat cancer has grown from a small handful to more than 170, and options for toxicity management have vastly increased.
  • Patient quality of life has improved dramatically and is now routinely evaluated in clinical studies.
  • Perhaps most significant, survival rates have increased—now more than two-thirds of patients with cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis, compared with less than one-half in the early 1960s. 

There is much to celebrate, and much work still to do.

“We are on the threshold of major scientific breakthroughs in cancer prevention, detection, and treatment, and we must see these through. We must also ensure that these advances reach all people with cancer, no matter where they live,” said ASCO President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP.

ASCO@50 on CancerProgress.Net

Nearly three years ago, ASCO launched CancerProgress.Net to mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. National Cancer Act, which led to major new investments in cancer research and significant increases in cancer survival. The site provides a dynamic and interactive history of progress against cancer and expert perspective on the future of care. In honor of the Society’s anniversary, the site will feature stories about ASCO’s evolution, an upgraded timeline of advances in cancer, aggregated news and views on ASCO’s anniversary and progress, social media features, and an opportunity to vote on the most
significant milestones in the field. 

The new ASCO@50 page details ASCO’s beginnings and its growth into the leading professional medical organization it is today. This section shares the story of ASCO’s history, along with a timeline, photos from the Society’s archives, and videos with ASCO leaders and cancer experts, including interviews with past ASCO presidents.

Visitors to the site will find inspiring videos, posted throughout the year, featuring Drs. Patricia A. Ganz, Bruce E. Johnson, Mitchell D. Schnall, George W. Sledge, and other leading oncologists discussing the advances they’ve observed in the field during
their careers.

“At every single step of the way over the last 50 years, ASCO has been there... trying to improve patient care, to improve the quality of life of our patients, to improve the efficiency of the cancer care system. I’m sure we’re going to do the same going forward,” Dr. Sledge said in his recorded interview.

Additional videos feature Dr. Hudis discussing achievements and future challenges in oncology, and a visual history of ASCO’s milestones.

The interactive Cancer Progress Timeline remains a key element of the site, but has been updated with a fresh look and is now accessible from all mobile devices. Advances in 18 disease areas and seven types of care are represented on the timeline.

As a new feature, members are invited to help identify the most significant advances against cancer from the past 50 years. From a chronological list of more than 30 crucial events in the field (see the timeline starting on page 12), members can vote for their “top five” on and discuss their opinions in a special 50th anniversary forum on Voting will continue through the 2014 ASCO Annual Meeting in June, and results will be announced soon after.

The 50th Annual Meeting ”Science and Society. . . The Next 50 Years”

ASCO’s first Annual Meeting was held in November 1964 at the Lakeshore Hotel in Chicago, shortly after the Society was founded. It was essentially a business meeting: 51 physicians ratified the constitution and bylaws, established eight standing committees, and elected the organization’s first officers. Dues were set at $10 per year.

The Society’s first scientific meeting took place one year later, on April 9, 1965, in Philadelphia. The 1.5-hour program featured three presentations on leukemia and multiple myeloma, attended by more than 60 members. At the fifth Annual Meeting in 1968, the first scientific abstract was submitted and accepted for presentation. Poster sessions debuted in 1981; the first Plenary Session and Meet the Professor Sessions followed in 1983.

Attendees of the 2014 Annual Meeting will find the abstracts, posters, and interactive sessions they’ve come to expect over the years, along with new aspects in celebration of the 50th anniversary. The theme of the Meeting, “Science and Society... The Next 50 Years,” was selected by Dr. Hudis to capture the progress of the past and the promise of the future in this milestone year.

“I would like to see our membership constructively engaged at all levels in the joyful task of showing the world the good that science does for each of us, and what good science looks like,” he said in his ASCOconnection. org column detailing the inspiration for this theme. “I am especially driven to this goal by my excitement about the advances we are making in cancer treatment. The problem of malignancy has never been better understood than it is now, the number of thoughtful experiments to test rational interventions that capitalize on our growing understanding of all levels of biology has never been greater, and this provides not only the opportunity to re-engage all of society, but also the obligation to do so.”

The history of ASCO, progress against cancer, and the advances being made today will come to life at McCormick Place. Annual Meeting attendees will hear from pioneers and the next generation of trailblazers in the field and engage in lively discussions both in person and online. Education Sessions at the Meeting will provide historical perspective and future directions in specific diseases and cancer topics, and the 2014 ASCO Educational Book will feature special articles from Society leaders discussing the anniversary.

ASCO Daily News will include a special supplement highlighting elements of the 50th anniversary, as well as profiling oncology luminaries—Past Presidents, Special Award recipients, notable donors, and visionaries in the field as identified by ASCO leadership. These profiles celebrate the contributions of more than 50 individuals who have directly or indirectly advanced
scientific progress and patient care.

A focus on the future

Despite the many achievements that ASCO celebrates this year, the Society and its members know we cannot afford to pause and trade on past success alone—there is too much at stake. Cancer remains one of the world’s most significant health challenges. In the area of prevention, conflicting evidence on the value of many supplements, vitamins, screening procedures, and other interventions continues to confound physicians and patients. Many cancers remain difficult to diagnose and stubbornly resist even the most sophisticated treatment options. Cancer is poised to overtake cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Worldwide, the heaviest cancer burden in the next decade will fall to developing countries, whose resources are already stretched perilously thin.

Harnessing the breakthroughs in technology and molecular biology will be the key to achieving better outcomes for patients. A focus on value and responsible use of health care resources will help ensure that every patient receives the greatest possible benefit from these discoveries.  

Ultimately, this celebration and this responsibility do not belong to ASCO alone—the Society sincerely thanks its members, partners, and allies.

Progress against cancer would not be possible without:

  • ASCO members, who are the researchers making important breakthroughs, the physicians delivering those advances to patients, and the affiliated health professionals providing patient centered compassionate care
  • Patients, millions of whom have volunteered for clinical trials and selflessly contributed valuable insight to researchers through their participation
  • Patient advocates, who have transformed the way society thinks about cancer, lifted the stigma of the disease, and advocated for major increases in research funding
  • Government agencies and policymakers who have invested in vital research
  • The Conquer Cancer Foundation and nonprofit organizations around the world that share the vision of a world free from the fear of cancer 

“Together, we will respectfully embrace the wonderful progress we have made, reflect on our continuing and evolving challenges, and aim ever higher,” Dr. Hudis said.

ASCO’S Founders

The Society remains deeply appreciative of the visionary founders who laid the groundwork for the organization’s many member-led achievements over the past 50 years and who united oncologists worldwide in the mission to improve care and outcomes for patients with cancer.

On November 5, 1964, ASCO held its inaugural meeting in Chicago for 51 charter members. It was there that the foundation of the Society was created with six ambitious goals developed by one of the organization’s seven founders, the visionary chemotherapist Arnoldus Goudsmit, MD, PhD, FASCO:

  • “Provide the form, meeting ground, and means for formal and informal communication and mutual education for and among clinically oriented individuals with special knowledge and training in the field of human neoplastic diseases. 
  • Provide physicians with proper professional educational background material and the opportunity to facilitate their own improved management of neoplastic diseases. 
  • Sponsor or cosponsor the publication of photographs, books, and/or articles on the subject of clinical oncology. The publication of a special particularly appropriate. 
  • Collaborate with other medical and research organizations, national and otherwise, with a view of enhancing professional education in the area of diagnosis and treatment of patients with neoplastic diseases. 
  • Initiate, coordinate, and cooperate in projects of investigation of human neoplastic disease. 
  • Provide a corporate framework for the pursuits of these and related activities.” 

Following is a list of ASCO’s visionary founders and the role they played in establishing the organization (for archival photos, videos, and stories, visit ASCO@50 on CancerProgress.Net). 

Fred J. Ansfield, MD, FASCO: Responsible for outlining a long-range plan for the institution of clinical oncology as a specialty in medicine, with a primary focus on the training of specialists in the field.

Harry F. Bisel, MD, FASCO: Also responsible for outlining a long-range plan for the institution of clinical oncology as a specialty in medicine.

Herman H. Freckman, MD, FASCO: Responsible for organizing a Membership Committee and recruiting potential ASCO members.

Arnoldus Goudsmit, MD, PhD, FASCO: Drafted a Society constitution and organizational bylaws.

Robert W. Talley, MD, FASCO: Developed a comprehensive list of contemporary drugs and their application to the treatment of cancer and used this information to develop scientific programming for the ASCO Annual Meeting and other Society-sponsored educational initiatives.

William Wilson, MD, FASCO: Created a budget that addressed the financial feasibility of a Society journal and related educational materials.

Jane C. Wright, MD, FASCO: Worked with other founders to develop a vision for ASCO and served as ASCO’s first Secretary-Treasurer, a position she held until 1967.

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