Scientific Perseverance in the Face of Political Revolution

Mar 07, 2011

Two major oncology events cross paths with historic Egyptian protests

by Elyse Blye, Senior Editorial Assistant

March 2011: January 2011 was meant to be remembered as a time in oncology when medical professionals traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to discuss the latest advances in cancer clinical trials, cancer treatment, and patient care. Instead, it will be remembered by those in the field as a time when two major oncology events crossed paths with an Egyptian revolution.

From January 27-28, ASCO—in collaboration with the South and East Mediterranean College of Oncology (SEMCO)—was scheduled to hold an International Clinical Trials Workshop (ICTW); from January 28-30, the Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO)—in partnership with the Egyptian Society of Surgical Oncology (EGSSO) and the European Society of Surgical Oncology (ESSO)—was scheduled to hold the 11th Annual Meeting of EGSSO.

Beginning January 25, however, Egyptian citizens took to the streets in an unforeseen series of demonstrations and protests designed to overthrow the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Images of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in other major cities around the country dominated world news, and within a short time, major media outlets dubbed the event the “2011 Egyptian Revolution.”

A passion for progress

Protestors in Cairo, Egypt

ICTWs support cancer research in economically emerging countries through the development of research skills of clinicians in those countries. The purpose of ICTWs is to educate members of the research team on best practices of clinical trial implementation. Course content joins globally accepted standards in the conduct of clinical research with a local perspective.

"We [as U.S. oncologists] wanted to take information we’ve learned in clinical trials and be one of the messengers representing ASCO in low- and middle-income countries, such as Eygpt,” said ASCO Board of Directors member Robin Zon, MD, FACP, of Michiana Hematology-Oncology. Dr. Zon also served as a Co-Chair of the Egyptian ICTW. “I was quite honored to go to the workshop in Cairo,” she added.

But with the change in political climate, the hotel management had to implement precautionary safety measures, according to Dr. Zon. Despite the challenging circumstances, participants and attendees of the Egyptian ICTW forged ahead and packed the majority of the two-day workshop’s content into just one day.

“Revolutions and environmental changes could happen anywhere at any time, and no one can avoid it—life cannot be stopped due to fear,” said Egyptian ICTW hosts Ahmed M. Elzawawy, MD, and Atef Badran, MS, PhD. (Dr. Elzawawy is President of the International Campaign for Establishment and Development of Oncology Centers and Co-President and Director of SEMCO; Dr. Badran is Manager of SEMCO and Coordinator of the Arab Medical Association Against Cancer.)

Attendees at the 2011 ASCO-SEMCO ICTW

“Our organizers got guests to the airport safely," Drs. Elzawawy and Badran explained in a joint statement to ASCO Connection. Now all Egyptians, including us, feel proud of our peaceful revolution and look for a brighter future. We’d like to give a special thanks to the ASCO team who visited Cairo and presented these valuable lectures. We wish to invite them back in the near future and to enjoy with us a free, democratic new Egypt,” they said.

Witnessing the admiration the Egyptian people have for their country and only wanting the best for their people is something that really made an impression on Dr. Zon. “This was very clear in the protests—designed to be peaceful and allow for continuance of their pious duties with five daily prayers,” she said. “The same passion was clearly evident in our Egyptian colleagues’ dedication to improving cancer care by participating in clinical research, despite the numerous challenges and adversities they faced.” She also noted how the Egyptian ICTW hosts remained very protective of and reassuring towards ICTW guests during a time of such political and social uncertainty.

EGSSO meeting to be rescheduled
SSO member and former ASCO EVP and CEO Charles M. Balch, MD, FACS, of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, was also in Egypt during this time, attending the EGSSO Annual Meeting. The meeting’s agenda included a variety of joint symposia and disease site updates in solid tumor cancers. Its purpose was to be an international collaborative meeting with invited surgeons from Africa and the Middle East, Dr. Balch explained.

“It was a very ambitious three-day schedule, for which I think they had about 500 people registered. By those standards, it was a very large meeting. They put a lot into it, but unfortunately it got aborted by the demonstrations in the first afternoon.”

Dr. Balch recalled how the next morning, on his way back to the airport, it was “an intense ride, going past burned out vehicles and cars going out of Egypt.” On one hand, “there were people—demonstrators—walking into Tahrir Square, and just an endless stream of tanks and military vehicles coming into the downtown area,” he said. On the other hand, “The demonstrations themselves, as we saw them at that time, were always peaceful.”

Despite the meeting’s premature conclusion, guests and hosts of the EGSSO Annual Meeting still share the same priorities.

“There were quite a number of us that made it very clear to our Egyptian friends—because they already indicated there will be a follow-up meeting, since they weren’t able to finish this—that we’d be glad to return and participate,” said Dr. Balch.

A “rewarding time for teaching and mentoring”
Dr. Zon and Dr. Balch fully embrace that cancer is a global issue that can and should be tackled from all corners of the world—and that international travel should be a component of that notion.

From a research standpoint, “Not only can we gain invaluable knowledge regarding cancers specific to different regions—which may be considered ‘rare’ cancers in higher income nations,” said Dr. Zon, “but we can also learn about personalized therapies and cost-effective treatments in areas of limited resources. This information could have enormous implications for the global community.”

In terms of international educational programs and programs that help increase the capacity of performing cancer-based research worldwide, Dr. Balch believes “the contributions that they can make are going to help us all on a worldwide basis.”

As someone who has traveled to over 30 countries, including ones on the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warnings list, Dr. Balch does acknowledge the common concerns of travel, but he doesn’t let them dictate his actions.

“I think everybody has their own acceptance of risk adversity, in terms of travel, but I’d encourage everyone who has the opportunity to travel abroad to do so and to participate because the rewards are great,” he said. He added, traveling abroad as a medical professional could be a “very rewarding time for teaching and mentoring.”

“I’m glad I went,” said Dr. Zon, about the Egypt ICTW. The experience of traveling abroad “changes every aspect of you—how you look at the people around you, the decisions you make. [It’s] only going to make me a better oncologist, from an international perspective.”

Dr. Zon offered some tips for those traveling outside their country:
  • Visit government websites, such as the U.S. Department of State’s website ( for up-to-date safety and background information on your country of interest
  • Register with a government-sponsored program such as the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive updates on travel warnings or alerts. Notify your local embassy of the dates and locations you will be traveling
  • If possible, try to meet up with someone from the country ahead of time to learn about local customs
  • If possible, check embassy reports every day
  • Consider hiring a reputable tour guide service that can utilize local knowledge to communicate concerns and help make the best of your experience abroad
  • Stay in contact with family and friends in your home country and ask them to monitor the news
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