How Our Oncology World Has Changed

The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology has always been one of my favorite medical meetings.


I have been attending this yearly gathering since the early 1970s.  The current meeting underway in Chicago shows how much the practice of oncology has changed, and reflects many of the broader social and demographic changes in our medical universe over the past 35 years.


Many of those changes are laudable and important.  But, some reflect underlying societal influences that have the potential to alter our view of how we conduct our science, and how we apply our knowledge to new treatments.


When I first started attending ASCO in the early 1970s, it was a relatively small meeting with a couple of hundred attendees.  The meeting could be held in small convention centers attached to hotels in various locations around the country.


Getting your arms around the agenda and attending many of the sessions wasn’t difficult to do.  You knew which presentations were important, and there were no exhibits to distract your attention.


I can still recall the debate at ASCO as to whether we would allow exhibitors to have displays at our meeting.   The debate was academic, with strong concern about the potential influence of the exhibitors on our clinical judgment.  The counter argument was the revenue the exhibits would generate.  Revenue won.


Today’s ASCO meeting is much, much different.


There are literally tens of thousands of attendees and exhibitors.  The exhibit hall is huge, and the “booths” are incredible presentations.  Some even include live shows and lectures designed to attract the physicians into the booth.


Many of the attendees are from other countries, further confirming the importance of cancer research and therapeutics throughout the world.


We used to meet in small venues.  Today, we are at McCormick Place in Chicago.  I literally walked a mile (as measured by my pedometer) just to get from the bus area to the registration area, then walked another half mile back to the lecture hall where I am now sitting.


But, and perhaps most important, I can no longer get my arms around the program.  There are hundreds if not thousands of educational, scientific, and research presentations.


One of my colleagues commented that her task was fairly simple, since her area of clinical interest is limited to gynecologic oncology.


For me, as a medical oncologist with broad interests in the clinical practice of cancer medicine, the task is much more difficult. 


There is no way I can figure out which presentations are most important, and where I should invest my time.  There are so many presentations on new targeted therapies that I cannot possibly attend even a fraction of them.


I must say that, as I write this early on Saturday morning at one of the general sessions, I haven’t yet found the “major” story that I am looking for.


Usually, the plenary session has a couple of breakthrough presentations.  Right now, I can’t say that this year’s plenary session appears that it will have that impact.


And I haven’t yet heard “the buzz” about special presentations or other abstracts that may represent real breakthroughs.


But I must say that perhaps I am becoming a bit jaded.  I suspect I am not along.


After all, targeted therapies are no longer the big new thing.  They have become just “the thing.”


That in itself is news, however.  The advances in this area of cancer treatment are so many that they have now become part of the landscape of the meeting, and no longer stand out as the occasional dramatic triumph.


In the meantime, I am going to continue attending the scientific sessions and hope that I will have some exciting and important information to share with you on subsequent blog entries over the next few days.

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