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What Is ASCO?

There are only a couple cities in the United States that have a building large enough to hold 34,000 people. Chicago is one of them. The American Society of Clinical Oncology, which everyone in the cancer community calls “ASCO,” holds its annual conference, one of the largest cancer meetings in the world, every June in Chicago … and YSC attends every year.

Last year, a month after I was hired as YSC’s CEO, I came to ASCO and Chicago for the first time. The mesmerizing architecture of the city was a bit distracting, but once I made my way to the convention center, I realized how big the world of cancer really is.

Imagine a college lecture hall, the biggest one you have ever seen in real life or on television – and then multiply that size by 10,000 – that’s how big the “talks” at ASCO are. While the size of this conference is noteworthy, it also illustrates the enormity of this gathering’s topic: cancer.

For those of you not intimately acquainted with cancer – and that’s a good thing - there are two primary cancer doctors: surgeons, the ones who surgically remove tumors from your body, and oncologists, the ones that treat your entire body with the hope that the cancer won’t spread. Of course this is a huge generalization and oversimplification of a complex industry and professionals, but I think it’s a good starting point for those just learning the language of cancer.

All of these doctors live and work in their own countries and cities. In some cases, they might work in small, local hospitals and not have anyone with whom they can discuss new science or complex cases. Others are busy treating their patients, which makes it hard to carve out time to read up on new discoveries and research. So, once a year, healthcare professionals from around the world meet in Chicago to learn and discuss new discoveries, cases and the latest research findings. I think this is cool.

Two other groups comprise this 34,000 person get-together: pharmaceutical companies and nonprofits.

The pharmaceutical companies use this gathering as an opportunity to tell doctors about their new drugs and what they are working on. Imagine where doctors can walk up and down aisles until they find something that relates to them, learn more about it, and incorporate it in their work, if appropriate. That is what ASCO is like.

When you first arrive in the exhibition hall, which is around the size of five football fields, your attention is directed to a very prominently positioned group of booths … this is where nonprofits live during this five-day gathering.

You might wonder why nonprofits like YSC feel it’s important to attend a meeting for doctors. It all comes back to the best possible care for those diagnosed with cancer. As doctors browse the aisles looking for possible treatment options for their patients, they’re also looking for new ways to help their patients navigate the journey we call cancer – that’s where we come in. Nonprofits serve a critical role in ensuring that doctors are also educated about ways they can help support the emotional part of the human being they are trying to save.

I wouldn’t want to attend a meeting with 34,000 people every weekend, but once a year it’s nice to witness the world’s cancer doctors getting together to try to rid the planet of cancer.

Look forward to seeing you in 2013, ASCO!