While a very few people are asked to give talks at AACR each year, the vast majority of the science presented at the conference is done by the person who actually does all the work– the graduate student or post doc– at a poster session. It’s kind of like a grown-up science fair, but without all the baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. Literally thousands of people put up a poster on a board for four hours, talk to other scientists about their work, and then take it down so several more thousand people can start all over again in the afternoon. What makes a poster session so great is that you have the opportunity to actually talk to the investigator, to interact, ask questions, make connections. These are great opportunities for beginning collaborations between scientists. During two of these sessions, the advocates had a row to put up our own posters. I would love to see us be able to mix in more with the scientific posters to perhaps get a little better traffic, but it was still a tremendous opportunity to present a poster at such a big meeting.
The poster I presented was a true collaborative effort, put together from ideas from the other ladies in the group at Georgetown. In truth, I was hoping to have an audience of scientists, to sell them on the virtues of including advocates in the research process. Thus, our poster described the credentials and the diversity of our group. The youngest in our group are in their mid-thirties, and we also have members in their seventies, and our members represent many different professions. I’m the most recent diagnosis, but we also have one (never diagnosed) high risk woman and a couple of ladies who are over twenty years out from their diagnosis. The women in our group have worked very hard to learn an incredible amount about breast cancer; many have attended the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD as well as other smaller educational activities. I wanted to emphasize that not only were were diverse and passionate, but that we are a group of educated advocates. But I knew that there was one thing that would be even more important to scientists than education: funding. In fact, quite a few in our group have served as full voting members as consumer reviewers for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, and others have also reviewed for Komen, NCI, and state programs in Texas and New York. No one was too interested in reading our publication history, but they were all very impressed to see that members of our group have served on ASCO guideline review panels as well. Not only are we capable of understanding some of the science and representing a broader patient population, we have done it in some pretty high profile places!
Let me tell you friends, if you have to present a poster for four hours, this is the kind you want to have. Everyone who stopped by listened intently and was thoroughly impressed by the group that Ayesha, our fearless leader and scientific adviser, has built. Many advocates wanted to know how to start such a program in their community, and, as I’d hoped, the scientists were impressed (surprised, though impressed!) by the credentials our members possess.
Since the conference was nearby in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to have some of the ladies from the Georgetown group join me for the poster session. There were definitely times when we had more than one discussion going, so it was good to have extra people on hand to chat.But frankly, having five of us there was even a more impressive display of our commitment to learning about cancer and becoming more effective research advocates. And selfishly, I loved having the opportunity to get to know the ladies better– two hours a month in a meeting with a full agenda is not the quickest way to build a relationship!
And since we’re talking relationships, it’s worth mentioning that we were lucky enough to have a few VIP scientists stop by our poster. Robert Clarke, PhD, DSc, is the Co-Director of the Breast Cancer Program at Lombardi, and Ayesha Shajahan-Haq, PhD is the Georgetown faculty member who first dreamed of a group like ours at Georgetown and then worked tirelessly to make it happen. She established the group four years ago, and we owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. And perhaps even more exciting than presenting my poster in the advocate row at AACR is the fact that it now hangs proudly in the hall of The Research Building (such a fancy name for a place where people do research, no?) just outside of Robert Clarke’s lab. Perhaps hanging there, our poster will finally get a good audience of scientists, after all.
I was privileged to participate in AACR as a part of the Scientist <-> Survivor Program. Read about my SSP experience here.