The rookie’s guide to navigating the 2014 ASCO annual meeting

A scene from the 2014 ASCO annual meeting held at McCormick Convention Center in Chicago.

I was prepared to be overmatched medically speaking when I walked into ASCO’s 2014 annual meeting; but I definitely was not prepared for the few hours it took me just to get caught up the “overmatched” level I had anticipated. So, with that in mind, follow along with my aptly named “Rookie’s Guide to Navigating ASCO.”

McCormick Convention Center in Chicago is a small city unto itself – at close to 3 million square feet, it’s over four times the size of Philly’s Pennsylvania Convention center.  Finding the press registration booth required walking across the entire convention center and then walking almost all the way back to the press room. Rookie mistake #1. I also spent half of the walk hiking my pants up; so forgetting my belt was rookie mistake #2. Wearing new shoes to “break them in” was rookie mistake #3.  You can see where this is going…

Then there was the convention itself – dozens of conference rooms packed with hundreds and thousands of people. The attendee population of ASCO is around 33,000 representing, from what I was told, 118 different countries (Rookie mistake #4 – fact check; you were in the darn press room Sharpe!). That’s more people than go to the average Phillies game!

The cavernous exhibition hall can’t even be described accurately; every major pharmaceutical company (and dozens of smaller ones) had a presence there, and by “presence” I am talking layouts that are nearly the size of my house. (It’s a small house, but still…) Interactive exhibits describe the latest in research and development (R&D) and pipeline drugs; plus, scores of representatives on hand to answer any question you may ask. It’s pretty easy to tell there’s a bit of one-upmanship between the big dogs, but it makes for a breathtaking way to see medical research brought to life.

Of course, the halls and hordes and mounds of paperwork/electronic documents would mean little if there wasn’t substance behind it. That makes ASCO all the more weighty; the information presented at that conference will dictate the medical future of millions of people. It will generate billions of dollars – in sales, of course, but also in ancillary economic stimulation. Think research money, grants, new treatments that necessitate new facilities and new experts, and heck, even new side effects that will require other drugs, nursing, and associated care. (There is, of course, the debate on overmedication and reliance on society to look for a pill to solve self-inflicted health issues that can be reversed naturally, but we can save that for another time.) Economically, socially, educationally — this weekend housed the impact of global health care that will trickle down to every corner of the Earth.

The information presented was overwhelming and then some – I literally had no idea where to start, even though they have an excellent online planning tool. The 350-page annual meeting program guide was thicker than some of my college textbooks. I know I can lend a bit of poetic license to some of these posts for effect, but I really feel as though I am understating ASCO’s enormity. Eventually, I found a few groups of people I know from across the industry – GSK, Merck, the MRA, Moffitt, and some others I’ve met along the way – and that helped in beginning the task of bringing back something meaningful to share here on the blog.  

Oh yea, there was some medical talk, too. Cancer has become a leading first-world health issue, if not the leading issue, and that gives it a very large spotlight. I touched on a few major melanoma announcements in my Melanoma Monday wrap-up, but there are more stories to tell that I will relay in coming posts. There will be a Q&A session with the MRA scientific team, who were kind enough to include me in some of their wrap-up discussions. I will also do my best to give a patient perspective on what the findings mean to that demographic. And as best as I can decipher, I will pass along some specific findings from the abstracts and presentations in a language meaningful to the Average Joe.

Needless to say 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, my legs were like Jell-O. I had walked as much as any day at Disney – just under 9 miles, according to the somewhat trusty FitBit – which included a meandering detour to the parking lot. Rookie mistakes #5 (not following signs) and #6 (not scoping out the walk from each lot) ended a very long day. I left without the energy to comprehend and communicate all that I witnessed that day, but with a notepad full of things to share.

Stay tuned for the results, coming soon to a blog near you.



T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »