Flo (left) and Emily White, Fight CRC Advocacy Manager (right)

I had the great opportunity to attend this year’s American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in San Diego and what an experience it was!  I arrived on Saturday morning and the first thing I did was try to acquaint myself with the hotel, as there was a satellite registration for attendees in the lobby – the very huge, spacious, long lobby!  There were over 20,000 attendees in multiple hotels throughout the area. We were fortunate to be in the conference hotel adjacent to the convention center.

Breakout Groups

In the afternoon we had lunch and the opening meeting of our advocacy groups. Our groups consisted of six teams with four to six advocates each, a mentor and a scientific mentor; we immediately began introducing ourselves and exchanging business cards.  We were presented with a binder that had our pictures and background information on all of us, the binder also had a schedule of special sessions.  Because we had lots of homework in the way of reading, etc., the materials were slightly familiar. Each one of the six groups had been given a question to “present” an answer to in the way of a PowerPoint, skit or any other means we wanted. My group was on clinical trials – the concerns, the issues and how we would propose to solve the issue(s) based on the sessions we attended and what we learned. Our group met several times in the course of the entire conference to talk about our presentation. One of the huge issues we tried to address was the issue of sharing databases (or not) and patient privacy.

One thing I can say about a scientific conference is that whatever you plan, be flexible enough to change!  There are so many poster sessions, speeches, recognitions, side meetings etc., that one thing supersedes another constantly. We had some latitude on the sessions we wanted to visit, but we also had a presentation to prepare. There were vendors and so many people to speak to. I truly believe that a lot of education and connections are built on hallway conversations, so I learned to keep the business cards handy and have lots of them.

Poster Prep

Another assignment given to each advocate was to prepare a poster to be displayed and presented in the exhibition hall with hundreds of other scientific posters!  This was a first for me, I had prepared my former boss’s posters for microbiology for years, but it is nothing like doing your own. Our poster session lasted four hours, but it sped by. So many people stopped and asked me about Fight Colorectal Cancer, advocacy, what advocates “do”, and how I became an advocate.  Many scientific researchers and doctors were not aware groups like us exist!

So many folks had great questions and would ask if they could contact me about research and patient advocacy.  All the advocates had exceptional posters explaining their organizations and the models used in them. I was so excited to talk about Fight Colorectal Cancer’s Research Advocacy Training and Support (RATS) group. To new folk attending their first scientific meeting, don’t worry, you will never be alone!  One of my personal highlights was when my former boss walked up to me during my poster session and beamed with pride!!  It’s only been about 20 years since I saw him, I was surprised by how many familiar faces I ran into from past meetings  I’ve attended.

We also had the awesome opportunity to spend A Night at the Lab when we were taken to a lab in La Jolla where we met several employees of the lab while they explained so many things to us. We even had the opportunity to be on an example tumor board and vote online about the treatment we would suggest based on the explanations given about two case studies. Remarkably, most of the advocates agreed on the answers.


The agenda is usually a very large book. I’d suggest downloading the program and agenda and planning your sessions ahead of time and try to attend sessions you are interested in. You’ll have a good start but again, be prepared to change. Your best learning experience might be on a coffee break at 4:15 in the afternoon when the session you were looking forward to is half a mile away in another section of the convention center!  Above all, really try to attend the special sessions particularly prepared by your hosts for the advocates. Convention centers are huge!

Another thing I would suggest is to ask questions of everyone, don’t be embarrassed. If there is something way over your head, and you are not “getting” it for some reason, go to another session!  There is so much to learn.

In the vendor exhibits, talk to representatives!  Thank them if they are a sponsor of the convention. Without them we couldn’t have this vehicle to learn. Pick up magazines and abstracts – if only to get acquainted with more terminology.  Yep some are heavy, but it’s worth it. Go to the poster sessions and ask questions. People love to talk about their work and explain it. The excitement in the poster area is usually pretty high voltage.

The scientific meetings have multiple receptions, presentations, awards and dinners. Many times advocates receive a special invite to these as did we. Again it’s another venue to talk, ask questions, find out how we can help as research advocates, and make new contacts.

Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You will walk (run?) a lot. Pace yourself with what you want to do, learn and experience. You will keep late hours and be tired (what else is new? ). One of the best things in the conference was the contagious enthusiasm of the presenters, researchers, advocates and physicians. Many times institutions have booths that are so informative. I spoke with representatives from MD Anderson, Dana Farber and the Scripps Clinic.

Another thing to remember is all cancers are usually represented whether in a new clinical trial, a new drug treatment, new research breakthrough and or new information being released from trials in progress. You will learn new side effects, new concerns, promising new treatments and new connections with multiple drugs.  You’ll meet advocates from different cancer support groups who are all passionate about what they do.  Some of the advocates are caregivers, some are healthcare professionals and many, many are survivors of multiple cancers. Keep an open mind. Keep in mind there are a lot of opinions, results, statistics and terms. There are many ways to present information, so absorb and scrutinize (in a good way). I met one gentleman who preferred not to be called a survivor, but rather a warrior. His reasoning was that survivor was something that could be used to mean surviving an earthquake or the Titanic. He wanted everyone to know he is still fighting the fight as many of us are!

When I left the meeting my head was spinning. Another new group of friends was formed.  I had achieved another level of inspiration and passion about our RATS group.  Another branch on the word “family” bloomed. I had a lot of follow up to do and I finally got to sleep!!  Thank you ACCR and everyone else!!

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