By Duaa Kanan
In 2019-2020, I had the privilege of serving as the co-founder and co-president of the first ASCO Oncology Student Interest Group (OSIG) in Turkey, at Bahçeşehir University School of Medicine. My colleague, Tarek Kanan, and I founded this group with one goal in mind: to create a community of students where we all work together towards making a difference for patients with cancer and their families. We saw this group as an ideal opportunity for us to be active in public health, advocacy, leadership, and education with a major focus on cancer prevention and screening, increasing the quality of life of patients and their families, as well as healthy living (e.g., reducing tobacco and obesity).
Soon after establishing this group, I was very excited to see how our community quickly grew to over 200 students, making up almost a third of the student population at our school of medicine! Students from their first year of medical school through their internship year were enthusiastic about joining this unique initiative. It was obvious that students were looking to enhance their understanding about oncology, take part in social activities and events, as well as have access to networking, mentoring, and professional development opportunities. From public health, advocacy, and education, to marketing and finance, students at all levels of skills, knowledge, and interests participated as part of this group. Our huge success in creating a large community of students highlights the importance of properly communicating what a student oncology group is all about and the critical need of medical student participation at every institution.
Oncology interest groups are not exclusive to only students who are interested in pursuing oncology. In fact, I believe it is important for all medical students to consider joining an oncology group at their institution, or even to establish their own, like we did. As aspiring physicians, we should not only learn how to diagnose and treat diseases, we should also work on initiatives that promote health and prevent diseases such as cancer. Medical students can make powerful contributions to this area, and their earlier exposure to oncology can allow them to be more comfortable and better prepared to manage the care of patients with cancer, no matter what specialty they choose in the future. Oncology is a multidisciplinary field and one does not have to be an oncologist to face cancer in their career, or in their personal life. These were the exact words we printed on our posters and banners to recruit students, as many students initially felt they were not well prepared to be further exposed to this field, considering the poor prognosis of some patients.
When we started planning out activities in our first month, I was delighted to see the high level of engagement and participation among our members. Students participated in multiple activities to raise awareness about cancer throughout the year. Students joined us at the Istanbul Marathon as we crossed the bridge going from Asia to Europe. Volunteers waved our flags to raise awareness about cancer every step of the way. At our hospital, we established a bookshelf in the chemotherapy department with dozens of donated books for patients on the oncology ward. We organized a day full of hands-on activities and musical performances for kids in the pediatric oncology department. We also started our Youth Smoking Prevention Program, where medical students visit local schools to give a short presentation about the dangers of smoking to middle and high school students.
When our in-person activities were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts online via our social media outlets. Students were active in translating information about COVID-19 that was tailored for patients with cancer, creating posts about mental and psychosocial health, and sharing facts and resources about cancer. Although it is not clear how student groups will operate next year due to the restrictions and limitations imposed by COVID-19, it is still important to be involved. There are numerous ways to be active and the options are limitless. Students need to be creative and effectively use the available tools and resources they have at hand.
Being associated with ASCO has many advantages to offer to students, such as an earlier exposure to the field of oncology and free access to the latest journal articles and research papers. Joining ASCO was very exciting for all of us, as we needed a leading organization to guide us and provide us with the highest quality and most up-to-date information and resources. The ASCO OSIG program provides students with amazing opportunities to lead initiatives in their communities. This program is now in its sixth year and has more than 87 sponsored groups worldwide.
As part of this program, students have access to exclusive resources and events that will complement their learning and development. Students can participate in the world’s largest oncology meeting—the ASCO Annual Meeting—at no cost for registration, where they have an opportunity to present their research, find mentors, and connect with the oncology community. This year, due to COVID-19, ASCO organized its meeting online, where participants had access to hundreds of presentations and abstracts as well as numerous mentoring and networking opportunities. I was honored to give an oral presentation on my research project as part of the Medical Student and Resident Abstract Forum in July of this year. I am also grateful to have found my mentor, who spoke with me about the challenges and rewards of a career in oncology and research and gave me the opportunity to practice presenting before my actual presentation! Such support to young trainees, especially during these unprecedented times, is truly phenomenal.
The ASCO OSIG program is ideal for students interested in public health, education, research, and leadership (read more about this program). Here, I have created a list of some of the benefits and opportunities available to students as part of the OSIG!
Some of the benefits of joining an OSIG group for medical students and young trainees:
- Become a better doctor by increasing your knowledge and learning from oncologists, leaders, and others about cancer care.
- Connect with your fellow students, faculty, and the global oncology community.
- Promote public health and raise awareness about cancer.
- Volunteer in outreach activities.
- Be a leader and challenge yourself.
- Put ideas into action.
- Inspire youth in your community and start initiatives to promote healthy lifestyles.
- Access resources and support funds from ASCO.
- Present your research and view presentations given by your fellow medical students and residents at the ASCO Annual Meeting’s Medical Student & Resident Abstract Forum. Thanks to ASCO, this unique opportunity was online this year!
- Expand your skills and experience in different fields, such as marketing, social media, and finance. Everybody is welcome to join!
Although my term as co-president is over, the progress and hard work will continue. I am volunteering to mentor the incoming ASCO OSIG team and help ensure the sustainability of this group for the upcoming years. Special thanks to ASCO, especially Ms. Natalie Holloway from the Professional Development team who provided me with great support from day one. I am very grateful for my co-president/co-founder, Tarek, whose determination and leadership were key to the success of our group. I would also like to thank our faculty supervisors, my fellow colleagues who participated and contributed their time and energy, and everyone who supported this initiative.
I hope that more students consider joining an oncology student interest group at their faculty, and lead initiatives that can have a lasting impact on patients with cancer and their families. Let’s conquer cancer one step at a time.
Ms. Kanan is a final year medical student/intern at Bahçeşehir University School of Medicine in Turkey. She served as the co-founder and co-president of the ASCO OSIG at her faculty and currently volunteers as a mentor. She is highly interested in pursuing a career as an oncologist and researcher. Follow her on Twitter @duaakanan21. Disclosure.