How to Navigate the ASCO Annual Meeting as a Fellow or Early-Career Oncologist

May 12, 2016

Jyoti D. Patel, MDBy Jyoti D. Patel, MD
University of Chicago

With the ASCO Annual Meeting less than 1 month away, I am certainly excited that I will be attending the world’s largest cancer meeting. I think that it is incredible that for 4 days, our worldwide oncology community— even in this digital age of virtual meetings and social media—comes together from all over the globe to share knowledge, exchange information, and learn from one another, all with the singular goal of improving cancer outcomes. With the major advances we have witnessed in cancer care in recent years, the Annual Meeting offers attendees a unique opportunity to learn and to improve oncologic care.

With over 30,000 attendees, the prospect of attending the Annual Meeting can be daunting. Admittedly, my first meeting was a bit overwhelming—I felt as if I was trying to drink from a fire hose as I was being inundated with new information and mapping my career trajectory. However, I quickly learned that attending the ASCO Annual Meeting can be the most rewarding professional experience for an earlycareer oncologist. It offers a chance to learn the best science, participate in the most exciting discourse, and find a place within your professional community. And now, year after year, coming to the Annual Meeting gives me the opportunity to interact with colleagues, mentors, and friends who have made my career more fulfilling and enjoyable.

To make the most of your Annual Meeting experience, consider the following:

1. Plan ahead to learn all that you can.

Download the iPlanner App, which has the full program, to help you plan your daily schedule and prioritize sessions. You will want to be sure to allocate time for the Plenary Session, where science of the highest merit and practice-changing research is presented. The atmosphere in the Plenary Session can be highly charged as the most highly anticipated research findings that improve the lives of our patients are presented. Be sure to attend Education Sessions, which offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary exploration of focused areas of clinical oncology. Wake up in time for the early shuttles to make Highlights of the Day, where expert Discussants present key findings, put abstracts into clinical context, and provide an overview of the previous day’s Oral Abstract Sessions. You will also want to attend Oral Abstract Sessions and Poster Discussion Sessions in your particular areas of interest. Attend the Professional Development Track sessions, which provide practical information geared toward critical decisions faced by junior members.

The amount of information presented in all of these sessions can seem mindboggling. However, distilling talks to key points, learning from Discussants who will review, editorialize, and put data into perspective, and asking questions will help solidify your knowledge base.

2. Prioritize opportunities to network and share ideas.

Make sure you utilize the Trainee and Junior Faculty Member Lounge (Room S501). There is a full array of programming, from meeting the editors of various ASCO publications to mock interviews conducted by senior faculty. It’s also a place to meet likeminded individuals and peers with whom you will work and collaborate for decades. It is a place to take a break, recuperate, and reflect on the Meeting and the next steps of your career.

Take advantage of the Poster Sessions. Although it is easy to feel intimidated by the size of the room and number of posters, walking through the posters can be a very personal experience. Try to focus on a particular disease site or theme. Introduce yourself to the presenters and ask questions, as this is a wonderful opportunity to share ideas and begin research collaborations. Most Poster Sessions also have “Poster Walks” in which a senior faculty member will lead a small group on a tour of select posters. This is tremendous chance to meet senior faculty as well as other peers who are interested in your field. The faculty members generally select high-impact posters to discuss science or clinical methodology that may be particularly relevant to understanding of the field.

Visit the Career Fair in the Oncology Professionals Hall and use downtime for career exploration.

3. Keep your momentum after the Annual Meeting ends.

With all of the programming, there is no way that you can attend all sessions that may be of interest. Nor can you be expected to remember everything that you have seen. After you return home, you will have access to the Virtual Meeting—a subscription is included with your Annual Meeting registration—where you can review key studies and watch the presentations by Discussants and faculty members.

Follow up with any contacts you made, usually by email. Most importantly, think about what you learned and how it will change care for your patients. Use your knowledge when you attend local ASCO review meetings and institutional tumor boards.

4. Have fun and be flexible.

Take some time to meet up with friends and enjoy Chicago by night. Make time to exercise or enjoy the lakefront. Dress professionally but comfortably. McCormick Place is one of the largest convention centers in the world and you will be on your feet for hours. Attend Physician Wellness Sessions to understand how to deal with stressors at this stage of your career and in the decades to come.

The Annual Meeting brings together the best science and clinical research that will impact our patients. However, the Meeting is much more than that. The Annual Meeting gives me perspective beyond my next clinic or my list of administrative duties. It gives me a chance to remember that my work as an oncologist is also about being a part of this community of professionals who use our collective knowledge to end the suffering cancer causes. The ASCO Annual Meeting captures our imaginations, revives us, and pushes us to do better.

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