The View From Texas: Covering the 2018 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium

January 14, 2019

The annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium is one of two important research events on the calendar for breast cancer advocates. Thousands of doctors, researchers, advocates, pharmaceutical representatives, caregivers and people with breast cancer come together at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for 5 days in early December. The event offers educational programs, speeches from some of the most accomplished researchers in the field, a chance to network and, of course, important new findings from studies on breast cancer treatment.

SABCS is a big event, with thousands of attendees, but what I have enjoyed about going these past 2 years is the feeling of intimacy. Unlike the American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in June, SABCS is only about breast cancer, and that focus makes for a more complete experience. The researchers that present, the treatments being discussed, the terms used and the doctors who participate in the Q&A segments become familiar. When a study shows results that can change treatment, everyone in town is discussing that finding. When you make a coffee to bring into the morning session, you rub elbows with well-known researchers. You get to meet other advocates, including Living Beyond Breast Cancer volunteers, and it’s common to run into the same people out in San Antonio.

Even though my priority is covering the new studies being presented, SABCS makes it easy to learn more. Around the general session – where new findings are presented – are debates, educational sessions, discussions and other programs that help paint the whole picture of breast cancer research today. As important as the findings presented are – you can learn about many of these in my daily dispatches from the conference – it enriches the experience to see the larger trends and how new studies fit in.

Once you are at the conference, you hardly have to try to find opportunities to further your learning (though it’s helpful if you do). Award lectures are chances for honored researchers to speak about their efforts over the years, and they provide important context for the current moment. I especially wanted to hear from this year’s recipients because they are members of LBBC’s Medical Advisory Board. I returned early from lunch Wednesday and caught Eric Winer, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, recipient of the Susan G. Komen Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction in Clinical Research, speak about his efforts to stop giving treatments to people they’re not helping, and why it’s difficult for treatment to change in that direction. On Friday, I saw Ann Partridge, MD, MPH,  also from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, give her American Association of Cancer Research Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research speech about breast cancer in young women, an area of focus for her for nearly 20 years.

In the general sessions, where all the studies are discussed in one place, one after another, you can see the way research rolls forward. Two studies presented used data from the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Study, a cohort established by Dr. Partridge that started enrolling people in 2006. A select few studies make headlines but at conferences you can see the lesser known work building toward the bigger goals that may change treatment in major ways  – like liquid biopsies to more easily watch changes in a breast cancer and individualized treatments to deliver medicines proven to work in your particular diagnosis without unnecessary treatments and side effects.  

Some of the most interesting programs were the Hot Topic Mentor Sessions, presented nightly by the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation. These sessions bring a panel of experts together to discuss the notable presentations of the day for an audience of patient advocates. I enjoyed how informal these sessions felt: four doctors talking about what they saw that day and taking questions. Looking at charts and figures and thinking about primary objectives and hazard ratios all day, it’s easy to lose sight of our goal to help you understand what the news means for your treatment and care. Researchers present the numbers on recurrence rates and mortality, they report how many more side effects a medicine caused, but it’s important to hear from doctors: Are they convinced by the results of this study?

The Hot Topic Sessions are a discussion. The doctors don’t have prepared slides and presentations. They sat in the same sessions as everyone in the audience and they share their reactions as medical professionals. What studies impressed them? What didn’t? What are their concerns? These reactions can be somewhat surprising. Something like a study about managing side effects may not get as much attention as a new treatment but can change practice right away and allow many people to get or finish a treatment they may not have been able to tolerate. Meanwhile, the release of a blockbuster new medicine may seem immediately practice-changing, but doctors may find they should be approached with caution, as some medicines offer a small benefit but with serious side effects and cost.

Finally, SABCS is a chance to meet LBBC volunteers out in the world and sit with them as a fellow participant. My work is mostly done in the office, with journal articles, data and our own publications. I relish opportunities to speak with our readers, whether for articles or at Living Beyond Breast Cancer conferences, but it’s special to sit alongside you at these events as a fellow attendee and compare notes.

Working toward better understanding and treatment of breast cancer is a year-round effort on the part of many people around the country, which includes people affected by breast cancer, researchers, healthcare providers and advocates. But having a conference like SABCS, dedicated to breast cancer, is a clarifying experience. It is a chance to learn, to meet and discuss, to take stock of where we are and where we are going.

Eric Fitzsimmons is Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Copyeditor and Content Coordinator. He covered the 2018 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. If you want to learn more about medical updates from San Antonio, join LBBC for our webinar on January 16.

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