Memories From 57 Years of ASCO Annual Meetings

Jun 07, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from “#MyFirstASCO: Memories From 57 Years of Annual Meetings,” published on June 3, 2022, on The Cancer Letter; adapted and republished with permission. Read the full article on The Cancer Letter for more remembrances of ASCO Annual Meetings past, including interviews with ASCO CEO Dr. Clifford A. Hudis, ASCO chief medical officer Dr. Julie Gralow, several ASCO past presidents, and The Cancer Letter editor and publisher Paul Goldberg.


By Alexandria Carolan and Katie Goldberg, The Cancer Letter

The ASCO Annual Meeting began in 1964 as a group of 51 physicians finalizing the bylaws of the organization—and has since turned into a much-anticipated global event that brings together 35,000 to 40,000 people across all areas of oncology. 

“Big trees begin as tiny acorns,” said John Laszlo, MD, an early childhood leukemia researcher, professor emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, and a retired national vice president for research at the American Cancer Society. 

Dr. Laszlo attended one of the first ASCO Annual Meetings in the 1960s. The first scientific meeting was in 1965, and according to ASCO Connection, that gathering included a 1.5 hour-long program with three presentations on leukemia and multiple myeloma. 

“No one predicted that a small group of oncologists could spark a movement the size of the current membership of ASCO,” Dr. Laszlo said. 

The Cancer History Project asked people who have played a role in oncology—fellows, cancer center directors, lawyers, pharmaceutical executives, CEOs, past ASCO presidents, and one journalist—to share their memories from their first ever Annual Meeting experience. 

“I Still Remember the Chair I Was Sitting In”

Most of the memorable moments from past ASCO Annual Meetings have to do with science.

When Larry Norton, MD, FASCO, senior vice president within the Office of the President, medical director of Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, Norna S. Sarofim Chair in Clinical Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and a past ASCO president (2001-2002), attended his first meeting in the 1970s, he had left behind the bedside of a young man who was dying of widely metastatic testicular cancer. 

“Another young physician, Larry Einhorn, was presenting his experience with adding cisplatin to the more conventional drugs for my patient’s disease, and the results were nothing short of mind-blowing,” Dr. Norton said. “His presentation hit me like a lightning bolt, so much so that I still remember the chair I was sitting in. I left the meeting early to try the new drug on my patient, who had a spectacular response. The wonder of it all, the magic that a new drug could create, thrills me to this day.” 

The wonder of experiencing all the science—and oncology all-stars—in one place is riveting.

“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” said Roy S. Herbst, MD, PhD, FACP, FASCO, deputy director for clinical affairs at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital, recalling the presentations and discussant sections from his first ASCO Annual Meeting in 1994.

Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, the Stuart B. Padnos Professor of Breast Cancer Research and professor of internal medicine at UM Rogel Cancer Center and past ASCO president (2016-2017), recalls volatile public debates that erupted among oncology legends.

“My most star-stuck moment was probably when Phil Schein and Charles Moertel got into a debate over adjuvant therapy for colorectal cancer,” he said. “Both were in the audience while the presenter (I have no idea who that was or what the topic was) watched them give and take across the ballroom (ASCO meeting was pretty small in those days). Finally, Dr. Moertel said, ‘Sorry, we didn’t mean to turn this into the Phil and Chuck show.’”

Tatiana M. Prowell, MD, associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, attended her first meeting in 2005, “the year that N9831, NSABP B-31, and HERA were presented in a Special Session on HER2-positive breast cancer.”

As an early-career woman in oncology, it was memorable “to witness two remarkable women leaders in our field—Drs. Edith Perez and Martine Piccart—at the podium, changing everything we knew about breast cancer.” 

Connecting with survivors and advocates has a profound personal and professional impact, Dr. Prowell said.

“A woman two seats down in my row was bald, wearing a headscarf, and as the audience erupted in cheers, she pumped her fist in the air and yelled out ‘YES!’ and bent over into her own lap crying,” she said.  “I don’t know if she was a participant in one of the studies or a patient with breast cancer, but to this day, when I think of her, it still brings me to tears. I carry her in my heart to every conference as a reminder that those Kaplan-Meier curves are a collection of human beings waiting impatiently for the results of everything we do, hoping for those moments, and making them possible for others.”

Mentors and Lifelong Friends

ASCO is the kind of place where, on a bus, you can meet a lifelong friend and research collaborator.

“At the 1989 ASCO meeting in San Francisco, I took a meeting bus from the convention center back to my hotel. I happened to sit next to Dr. Patrick Loehrer (at the time an associate professor at Indiana University). He introduced himself, and was very kind to me,” said Charles R. Thomas Jr., MD, FASTRO, FASCO, chief of the Section of Radiation Oncology, professor of medicine at Geisel School of Medicine, and associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center. 

“He’s been helpful to me over the past few decades, and even allowed me to participate in various thymic neoplasm academic projects over the years,” Dr. Thomas said. “I now get the opportunity to begin collaborations with his son, Dr. Andrew Loehrer, who is a surgical oncologist at Dartmouth.”

Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO, director of the pelvic malignancies program at Lifespan Cancer Institute, head of community outreach and engagement at the Cancer Center at Brown University, and director of medical oncology at the Rhode Island Hospital, also made a career-defining connection on an ASCO bus.

“I was feeling bad for myself as we made our way to the center, and that’s when I struck up a conversation with Lisa Greaves, who now is division director of educational meetings at ASCO,” he said. “She told me she had read some of my online writings and introduced me to ASCO Connection, and the opportunity to write a blog then. That was over 100 blogs ago!!”

Darya Kizub, MD, a hematology/oncology fellow at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said running into Dr. Gabriel Hortobagyi was a crucial mentorship moment for her.

“We have collaborated on the SWOG 0307 paper together, and he provided excellent comments about my first draft, yet I had never met him in person,” she said. “Despite running late to a meeting, he made the time to talk with me. As I learn to mentor others, I hope to be at least half as gracious and accessible as Dr. Hortobagyi.”

Ishwaria Subbiah, MD, medical oncologist, palliative care and integrative medicine physician, and director of faculty and academic wellness in the Office of the Chief Academic Officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center, didn’t have a geriatric oncology mentor before she attended her first Annual Meeting as an oncologist, in 2013. 

“It was at ASCO 2013 when I first listened to Dr. Arti Hurria, Dr. Supriya Mohile, Dr. Tanya Wildes, Dr. William Dale, Dr. Efrat Dotan, and many such geriatric oncology visionaries and leaders, discuss ‘geriatricizing’ clinical trial design and optimizing person-centered care,” she said. “I found my calling, my tribe.”

Fumiko Ladd Chino, MD, cancer researcher, assistant attending in radiation oncology, and co-lead of the Affordability Working Group at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said she had found her mentorship at a Health Services dinner organized by Dr. Aileen Chen.

“I remember sitting with her and Dr. Ryan Nipp, and chatting about my research and my goals,” she said. “I was so thrilled I was able to participate as a medical student and so happy that I had found my research niche and that it was filled by passionate, engaged, and kind people.”

Professional connections are an integral part of the annual meeting, said Karen Knudsen, PhD, MBA, CEO of the American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. 

“Literally everyone I needed to speak to was right there at one meeting, from the clinical partners I wanted to collaborate with to develop new trials to the pharma partners needed to launch laboratory-based findings into the clinic,” she said. 

Read the full article in The Cancer Letter.

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