I have to say that heading back to AACR (the annual meeting for the American Association for Cancer Research) after all these years was a bit surreal. In the past, I always went with a group from Georgetown– students from other labs and of course at least a person or two from my own lab. Of course, we all had different priorities for the science we wanted to see, but I had a built in group for dinner or someone to sit with at the big plenary lectures. I’m good at being independent, but five days without built in friends was a little daunting.
And here is just part of the beauty of the Scientist <-> Survivor program run by the AACR: built in friends, and since they provided most of the meals, someone to eat with. There were roughly thirty cancer survivors or patient advocates in the program, and there were also a handful of scientists or oncologists who served as mentors to help guide us through the sheer volume of the conference.
They divided us into smaller groups to work on a specific project, and I was thrilled to already “know” two of my fellow group members, as I’d bumped into them on the #bcsm twitter chats. (And the win goes to social media!) Each group was assigned an advocate mentor who’s been through the program before (this was the program’s seventeenth year!) and a scientist mentor who can explain any science-y questions and help group members find the sessions that are the most interesting for their point of view.
They took super good care of us. As I mentioned, they fed us very well had lots of sessions set up just for the SSP program. Some of the ladies from the advocacy group at Georgetown came for a couple of days, and the lovely Karen, who took such great care of all the SSP participants, invited them to join a few of the sessions. Their absolute highlight was Dr. Carolyn Compton, who presented Cancer Mini Medical School. Not only did Dr. Compton teach them a lot about cancer, but she did it with such enthusiasm that no one even noticed she’d been presenting to us for over three hours and straight through dinner! (Except for maybe Dr. Ann Barker, who started the program seventeen years ago, and kept a watchful eye on the clock!)
Besides Dr. Compton’s presentation, they had scientists lined up to speak to us in some of the most exciting areas of cancer research. Not only were these scientists brilliant, they were excellent communicators and were thrilled to share their passion with the advocates. We learned from the experts about circulating tumor cells and the possible future of liquid biopsies, big data– the accumulation of petabytes (I don’t know, it’s a LOT) of data from the sequencing of tumor genomes, and harnessing the immune system to fight cancer.
As a scientist, I went to these conferences and attended lots of sessions, talking to lots of scientists about their work. As an advocate with the SSP program, I quickly found myself torn between a speaker or potentially interesting poster and a special SSP session or working group meeting. Carlos Arteaga won out over the first hour of mini med school (I do have a cancer degree, after all) but I’m still a little disappointed I missed hearing Bert Vogelstein’s talk. Yet, I realized that most scientists are really looking at everyone else’s science for a new way to look at their own research. Maybe they’re looking for the technique that will get them over the impasse they’ve encountered, or they’re looking for a new collaboration. I wasn’t looking for a new technique, but a collaboration? Maybe. So I made sure to invest my time in relationships this year at AACR.
And so I met a lot of people for coffee, which means I drank a LOT of coffee. (Which, given the 7am sessions and the receptions lasting until ten or later, I needed!) I was thrilled to find that the Reading Terminal Market was just across the street from the convention center. I had more than a couple cups of coffee (brewed on site!) and hand made caramel doughnuts while I chatted with friends, old and new. I got to know the ladies who came up from the Georgetown group so much better, and I was thrilled to catch up with my first graduate mentor, talking kids– dance classes, gymnastics, and what they want to be when they grow up. (Kids really are the universal language.) Maybe even better was the opportunity to meet a whole brand new set of people, a few new scientists, but also people involved in public policy, research advocacy, health and wellness advocacy, fundraising, science writing, and I even met an editor of a brand new scientific journal. It was great to connect with the other advocates, hearing their stories, not just about their cancer, but about what they’ve done since being diagnosed. I was so impressed with how the non-advocate types I met– journalists, policy people, and even scientists– were genuinely interested in finding ways to incorporate the advocate’s perspective in their work.
At the end of the day, I made a lot of new friends, collected a big stack of business cards, and even got a fancy certificate! Stay tuned for the poster update and a little summary of some of the science I saw, too. It was a jam packed five days, and I couldn’t possibly get everything into a single post!