Your First ASCO: Remember, the Goal Is to Feel Inspired and Replenished

Bishal Gyawali, MD, PhD


May 22, 2019

ASCO, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, can feel more like a carnival than the biggest conference in oncology, with a huge influx of participants arriving from all over the world.

You can't find the same energy anywhere else.

Naturally, this can be very overwhelming for first-time attendees. I'd like to share some of my experiences with the meeting, which is just around the corner. Although I'm focusing specifically on the ASCO annual meeting, these tips may be helpful for other meetings, such as the annual congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO). I should also caution that my approach is not necessarily the right approach; different people have different approaches and you should listen to them all, but choose the one that best suits your goals and ambitions.

Why Attend at All?

First, should you attend the meeting at all? I'd say yes, especially for trainees and early-career oncologists. I say this not only because of the content presented at the meeting, but also for the overall experience of ASCO—it can get you charged up and keep you inspired for a long time. You can't find the same energy anywhere else. However, if you have already attended multiple ASCO meetings, or if you have to fly double-digit hours each way without presenting an abstract or attending a special meeting, I think you can put your time and money toward better things.

Where else can you meet all the big names in oncology in one place?

Book Your Hotel 9 Months in Advance

If you decide to attend the meeting, the first thing you need to do is book a hotel. Hotel prices get insanely high as the meeting nears. Ideally, you should have booked your hotel way back in September 2018 for ASCO 2019. I learned this the hard way last year. Because of transitions in my career, I was not sure if I'd be able to attend ASCO 2018 until March and ended up paying more than $2000 for a 4-night stay at a lousy hotel! And when you book a hotel, make sure it's in the downtown area; it's the hub for most of the parallel events that happen during ASCO, and there are regular bus shuttles from the downtown hotels to the convention center, McCormick Place.

Make the Most of Your Opportunity

Okay, you've decided to attend the meeting and even booked a hotel. Now let's discuss the meeting itself. For first-timers, prepare to be surprised! Remember, it's more a carnival than a meeting. Both the crowd and the meeting venue are huge.

But it's not just the quantity of people; it is also the quality. Most of the top people in oncology from all around the world will be there. It can be intimidating at first, but think of it as an enormous opportunity. Where else can you meet all the big names in oncology in one place? If you plan and prepare well, you have the opportunity of a lifetime: to meet most of your favorite superstars in oncology in person at a single meeting. Be prepared to make the most of this opportunity.

Where to Find the Best Information

Surprisingly, most of the important opportunities lie outside of the meeting halls. It may feel painful to not be able to attend all of the sessions—many of which run simultaneously—having paid a handsome registration fee. Furthermore, most of the trainees and oncologists working in the community or from low-income countries do not have any one particular site of focus and see patients with all types of cancers.

However, I'd strongly advise against trying to attend as many sessions as humanly possible. It may sound counterintuitive, but I think the law of diminishing returns holds true here: The more sessions you attend, the more tired you become and the less you get out of ASCO. Remember, the point of attending oncology meetings is not just to collect information. In fact, I can assure you that there is no critical presentation that will be missed entirely. Remember all the years you didn't attend this meeting? You did fine, right? The really big studies, the ones that'll change your practice, will be all over the news and are usually published simultaneously in important journals. Reading the published manuscript for nuances is obviously important, because you can't base your clinical decisions on what you heard in a big meeting alone. Furthermore, for really big news, the presenters, discussants, and other experts will be discussing these trials in various media such as Medscape, so there is no chance of really missing anything big. Of note, with virtual access to the meeting materials, you can also watch all of the presentations to your heart's content from your office, bedroom, hotel room, or wherever.

In addition, today Twitter has taken the place of corridor gossip; Twitter chats and commentaries are much more effective than listening to murmurs and questions and answers during the actual session. You can even talk directly to the speaker of the presentation (provided that s/he has a Twitter account) without embarrassing yourself at the mic. Best of all, you don't have to be the annoying one in the session making all the noise with your camera clicking away. Rest assured, you'll see more pictures of slides on Twitter than you'd have taken yourself.

The Plenary Session: Underwhelming This Year, Yet Not to Be Missed

To many global oncologists, this year's plenary may be a little disappointing because, frankly, outside of the United States, people rarely care about Medicare, Medicaid, or technology companies like Flatiron Health, and many global colleagues told me that when plenary session titles were released this year, the enthusiasm was much softer than usual. But this doesn't mean you can skip the sessions altogether. Plenaries are a must.

You can review studies anytime, but you can only meet new people or catch up with friends in person.

I know that some of my colleagues have mixed feelings about this year's plenaries, and I can totally relate to these feelings. However, we need to congratulate ASCO on making the statement that clinical trials are not the only way to get into the ASCO plenary. This in itself is a huge position that needs to be celebrated. Giving an ASCO plenary presentation is a dream come true for anybody working in the field of oncology. Unfortunately, clinical trials almost always get ASCO plenary spots despite the fact that nontrial research has played an important role in shaping policy. We often hear groans from researchers that no matter how good their research, they can never dream of giving an ASCO plenary presentation, simply because their work is not a clinical trial. I hope that will change starting with ASCO 2019.

Other Sessions to Attend

I attend a few other sessions besides the plenary talks, but I make it a point not to overdo it because there are other important things that I would be missing out on. I believe that you can find knowledge and information easily with today's technology—you don't need a conference for that—but inspiration is scarce. Big conferences like ASCO are important opportunities to get inspired. You can review studies anytime, but you can only meet new people or catch up with friends in person.

There's nothing like listening live to a person you have enjoyed reading online.

My first stops are sessions featuring speakers that I respect after having read their papers or watched their talks online, or interacted with them on social media. At any big meeting, I search for their names and check whether they are giving a talk. I try to attend these talks because they inspire me. There's nothing like listening live to a person you have enjoyed reading online, and it may give you a chance to say hello. Attending their talk also provides a topic for discussion should you meet them at a later date.

I also try to attend the sessions where my friends are giving talks or presenting something because, well, that's what friends do.

If I am working on a certain topic for my research or a paper, I make a point to attend the sessions on related topics because (1) I want to make sure I haven't been scooped (this happens often, but it is better to find out earlier than later); (2) I may stumble upon a brilliant idea for another line of research; or (3) I may meet with colleagues who could potentially be collaborators on future projects.

Finally, as much as possible, I try to attend the award ceremonies. There's nothing more inspiring than seeing people get recognized for their efforts.

If You Have Any Time Left Over

What do I do in the remaining time? I use it to meet people, talk with them, and develop relationships. When I say I "meet people," I am talking not only about meeting people for the first time but also about making time for friends and colleagues. For example, could there be a better place than ASCO to catch up with my friends and colleagues from Japan or Australia?

I have found that it is futile to try to arrange these meetings beforehand; everybody's plans keep changing. The best thing to do is just text or email them when you're free and see if they're free too. Another good approach is to see if the people you want to meet have poster presentations. If they do, the poster sessions are the best place to go and say hello. The presenters are often bored at posters anyway, so they'll enjoy your company. I have often found that saying, "Hey, Dr X, I follow you on Twitter and I really enjoy your tweets" is a great conversation starter—both when I approach someone or when I am being approached by someone else. (But first, please make sure they're on Twitter, otherwise it will be awkward for both of you.)

At ASCO, I also find it worthwhile to hang out in the lounges. For example, the trainee lounge not only has free drinks and snacks, but it also holds events tailored to trainees. The journal lounges sometimes hold "Meet the Editor" sessions where you can talk with the editors of ASCO journals and get tips on how to get your papers accepted. Sometimes there are "Meet the Mentor"-type sessions where you can speak with some of the famous names in oncology in a casual atmosphere.

These meetings are also opportunities to explore different career development options. If you are looking for fellowships or job opportunities, this is the perfect place to get in touch with your prospective employers in person. I had a drink with Drs Chris Booth and Scott Berry, a professor and the head of oncology at Queen's University, respectively, at ASCO 2018. It's now a year later and I am on the faculty at Queen's University.

Most important, don't forget to have fun and enjoy the beautiful city of Chicago. The purpose of attending big meetings is to feel inspired and replenished, not tired and overwhelmed.

I hope to see and chat with some of you at the ASCO annual meeting this year. I've even told you how to strike up a conversation with me.

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