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Attending ASCO in Person This Year? Remember These 14 Tips

The first in-person ASCO in 2 years is right around the corner — I can’t tell you how excited I am.

As I have mentioned, my excitement about ASCO is not just about the sessions, science, and research, but also the overall atmosphere and connecting with friends.

Today, I am sharing 14 tips for ASCO attendees that may be useful for first-timers and veterans.

1. Have fun. The meeting is huge, though probably less so this year because of the pandemic. Enjoy yourself, learn something, make friends, build collaborations, and return rejuvenated. If you are attending the ASCO annual meeting for the first time, check out my previous column.

2. Trust that connections will happen. Remember that professional relationships at meetings tend to follow a familiar evolution: At first, you know no one and no one knows you. Then you know everyone, but no one knows you. Then you know everyone and everyone knows you. Then you know no one, but everyone knows you. Finally, you know no one and no one knows you!

3. Reach out to people you respect. There may be people who you want to meet, whose work inspires you, or who you would like advice from. Just write to them through email or Twitter. Making these connections, even if for only 5 minutes, can open new collaborations and opportunities and can even be life-changing.

4. Take time to lounge. ASCO has many lounges — some for early trainees or journals, for instance — where you can sit and chat with people. Use them.

5. Look to the future. You can use ASCO meetings to find job opportunities or meet with prospective employers or mentors. If you have a certain workplace in mind, you can also meet people from that institution to learn more about the people and the work environment.

6. Don’t worry if you feel like an imposter. Impostor syndrome is common. It’s very normal to feel like you don’t belong. Here are a few tips to help curb any negative feelings that might pop up during the conference:

  • Don’t look at other people’s ribbons. You may only have one ribbon that says “attendee” while others have ribbons that touch the ground. It doesn’t matter. Ribbon length is a poor measure of someone’s success or mentorship skills.

  • Don’t follow the “top influencers of ASCO” or another list that rates people. Some people, for instance, use hashtag #ASCO22 for every tweet, with the goal of being “top influencer.” These lists are a bad surrogate for meaningful information.

  • You may see people congratulating each other and feel left out. Don’t worry. These moments do not reflect on you or your worth as a physician, researcher, or mentor. At a meeting like ASCO, congratulations are offered so freely that they can border on meaningless.

7. Show me the data. When attending any session, remember the following:

  • Response rates and durations of response from single-arm trials may sound impressive but aren’t reliable. These rates will fall with a larger cohort in a phase 3 trial.

  • Randomized controlled trials need to be critically appraised: Was the control arm appropriate? Was there crossover? Was the trial stopped early? All this information may be missing from a presentation. Don’t follow the hype after only hearing the conclusion.

  • The size of P values means nothing about how good the intervention is. Look at the effect size.

  • Improving a surrogate endpoint like response rate or progression-free survival is not inherently meaningful. Survival is the key.

  • Drugs that do not improve overall survival and worsen quality of life are harmful.

8. Listen critically for jargon.

  • When someone says that a drug’s side effects are acceptable, ask yourself — or, better yet, the speaker — “Acceptable to whom?” Only patients can determine what side effects are acceptable.

  • “Chemotherapy-free regimen” means nothing. Chemotherapy-free does not mean toxicity-free. If someone wants to claim better quality of life, they must show the data.

  • Similarly, language like “novel,” “first-in-class,” and “unique mechanism” means nothing unless they improve survival or quality of life.

  • “Real-world data,” “big data,” and “artificial intelligence” are fancy terms, but they may not mean anything. Judge each abstract on its own merit.

9. Don’t spend all your time in sessions. Use ASCO as an opportunity to meet people. You will have access to the virtual meeting and the slides anyway as an in-person registration. But please do come to my session and congratulate me! I promise to congratulate you back.

10. Poster prep. If you are presenting a poster, get the poster printed on site so that you don’t have to carry it on your flight.

11. Travel tips. For international travelers and especially those from Canada, flying into Chicago Midway rather than O’Hare is often better for avoiding a long line at the immigration desk. Plus, you don’t have to stay at the ASCO hotel to use the ASCO shuttle service.

12. Say “cheese.” Get a professional headshot taken for free. ASCO usually has this service on site during the meetings. Also, sign up for promotional offers for things you would be purchasing anyway, such as renewing ASCO or ESMO memberships.

13. Get ready to be inspired. During the conference, you’ll be meeting new people, listening to the talks, and strolling through the corridors, and you may be hit with inspiration about a new research project or collaboration. Carry a notebook, smartphone, or laptop where you can jot down notes immediately. You don’t want to forget a potentially exciting idea.

14. Be respectful, be human, and have fun. There’s more to life than your job. Don’t stress. Think about the bigger picture. Think about your patients. And remember, life is beautiful, even when it feels like it isn’t.

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