By Stephanie L. Graff, MD
As I travel home from the 2018 ASCO Annual Meeting, I am literally and figuratively in the clouds. Yes, I’m on the plane. But more, I am on a conference high. I love the Annual Meeting.
My excitement for the Annual Meeting starts months before. As I prep abstracts, await the Scientific Program Committee decisions, and pour though the released abstracts the excitement is continually building. Then the schedule is released and I dutifully circle all the sessions I want to attend, while smirking at my ambition. I always circle far more sessions that I want to attend than will be possible to fit in my schedule... but it is fun to dream! I start comparing notes with my friends, mentors, and colleagues. We celebrate posters and abstracts, sessions, and speaker invitations. I go back to those circled sessions and adjust the plan to be present and support the work of my friends. Then the early round of ASCO press releases hit and social media erupts in breaking news and the #ASCO18 hashtag starts to fill my feed. And I start to explore options in Chicago—will I see Hamilton again, check out the Cubs, or get a massage? I have mixed success making time for “me time,” but it never stops me from imagining.
Before I know it, the meeting begins. This year the kick-off session was a point/counterpoint debate between Dr. Leonard Saltz and my mentor, ASCO President-Elect Dr. Howard “Skip” Burris. The session was a great opportunity to start my meeting with lots of friendly faces and conference room hugs. From there, I very quickly fell into the routine of attending breast-focused sessions while balancing my investigator meetings.
I am an extrovert, and I like seats near the front of the sessions. As I find my seat, three outcomes occur: I am seated next to an old friend and celebrate reconnecting; I am sitting next to a new face and find a chance to make a quick introduction; or—new for me this year—the person turns to me and says, “Hi! We are friends on Twitter!” The beauty of making the small world of oncology, breast oncology in particular, a little bit more connected and personal in this way really makes me feel like member of the larger community of hematologists/oncologists.
But that networking extends beyond the sessions to the numerous lounges and events ASCO helps coordinate. I spent time in the Conquer Cancer Donor Lounge, met some of my professional idols in the speakers’ lounge, met a new friend on the D2 terrace over lunch, and spent hours in the Women’s Networking Center where I both spoke and offered mentoring sessions. In the Women’s Networking Center so many early-career oncologists were able to shake off their ASCO-overwhelmed introversion and ask questions, get advice, and start to build networks of their own. I also had numerous opportunities through those same lounges to thank an ASCO staffer. I honestly don’t know if I fully comprehend the work they must do to make an event for 40,000 people come together so smoothly... but I know they deserve praise for the remarkable efforts. Also, this year I attended my first Tweet-Up, connecting the broader landscape of docs and patient advocates engaged in social media.
And the science! Oh, I love the science. I love learning about cellular signals and pathways, genomic testing platforms, new chemotherapy combo therapies, de-escalation of care, toxicity management, patient-reported outcomes, the ever-emerging landscape of immuno-oncology, and so much more. Each year, ASCO amazes me at the depth and breadth of research reported. My fellow oncologists and other stakeholders inspire my awe as they demonstrate their clear and persistent passion for making this disease stop. Discussants’ thoughtful work to put research into a clinical framework and shape the role of newly reported research will play back in our offices is a testament to our profession.
This year, I also saw the full depth of philanthropy the organization champions. I engaged with both a patient advocate and a young investigator present at the meeting on a travel grant from ASCO. I saw fellow attendees packing chemo kits to distribute to Chicago-area patients with cancer. I attended a Conquer Cancer Foundation fundraiser at Tory Burch, as well as a Women Who Conquer Cancer event celebrating the achievements of women leaders in oncology, where many donated to continue grants allowing those same leaders to grow.
But now what? My mind is swirling with new scientific data, my purse is overflowing with new business cards, and my suitcase is a few pounds heavier from the Tory Burch event! As I settle back in to (an overflowing) clinic, I work on summarizing big take-aways from breast oncology research for my partners, breast surgeons, and nurse navigators who are always eager for an update. Were there scientific updates that directly impact current patients? What about practice management pearls I learned—strategies for survivorship, palliative care, or genetics programs that would improve my comprehensive patient care? I send follow-up emails to the new connections I made. I also look to my calendar—what upcoming ASCO meetings do I need to register for? (I will be attending the ASCO Research Community Forum Annual Meeting at ASCO HQ September 23 and 24.) Is it too early to go ahead and block my clinic schedule for the 2019 ASCO Annual Meeting?
Luckily my plane came down safely from the clouds, but my conference high continues. I will carry the feeling of sitting with 40,000 of “my people” in sessions—that humbling awe of being surrounded by so many people from the international oncology community, bound by a shared vision of a world without cancer, their brilliance, their boundless dedication to this calling. That feeling will give me the strength to look my next patient in the eye with soaring hope.
Until next year, dearest friends.
Dr. Graff is a breast medical oncologist. She is the director of the Breast Cancer Program at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health and the associate director of the Breast Cancer Research Program at Sarah Cannon Research Institute. She serves on the ASCO Research Community Forum and the Professional Development Committee, as well as the Practice Guidelines Implementation Network. Dr. Graff is on Twitter @DrSGraff.