Reflections on SABCS From Afar

By Barbara A. Brenner, Former Executive Director

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m not attending the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium this year. But, since I’ve been to lots of these meetings, I can imagine what’s happening.

People are flooding into the local airport from all of the country and the world. The shuttle ride to the downtown hotels is an opportunity to meet people and find out their connection to the breast cancer issue.

As the scientific sessions start, the large hall fills with people, many with laptops and cameras in hand so they can take notes or photograph slides and not miss a word that’s said. There will be a good number of “advocates” in the audience, their attention mostly equally rapt by what the presenters are saying. Most of the advocates who attend this meeting come as part of a program run by the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation that educates non-scientists about science. The program is funded by the pharmaceutical industry.

After each presentation (except the plenary sessions), there will be time –never more than 10 minutes – for questions from the audience. People will line up at the mikes scattered around the room, and wait to be recognized by the chair of the session. Some of the doctors who stand up to ask questions will have pointed comments to make about the studies presented, but most won’t.

Rarely if ever will an “advocate” pose a question from the floor. Most of the advocates who attend this meeting are here trying to absorb as much information as possible. They are not here to push the scientists to do better by those affected by breast cancer. In the last years that I attended this symposium, the only non-doctor I heard ask a questions (besides me) was a person who wanted to know what the study presented meant for her particularly situation. Seemed she thought that her job at the meeting was to get medical advice.

As for what information will be presented, if trends of recent years persist, there will be a lot about microbiology, and less about treatments that are about to be available to help patients. There will be lots of basic science, many slides of genetic arrays, and not so much about what’s happening in patient’s live today.

In the 10 to 15 minutes that each presenter gets to describe their studies, each will do their best to present something exciting as quickly as possible. And press releases issued in advance of the presentations will help to promote this view.

You can’t blame the presenters for trying to make everyone think they have made or are about to make a breakthrough. But you can and should blame the pharmaceutical funders of the research for the hype that comes out of this meeting.

And it’s sure not helpful to patients or those who represent them to hear and see lots of slides that don’t really present all the benefits and risks of what’s being discussed.

So I expect that any “advances” that come out of this meeting will be incremental at best.

When the major sessions are paused at mid-day or day’s end, there will be dozens of side meetings sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. Some of these are set up specifically for advocates in the hope that the advocates will take the message about drugs back to their constituents. The meals that accompany these meetings are always nice, and paid for by the pharma sponsors. For that matter, all the food at breakfast and during the poster sessions in the evenings is also paid for by pharma.

I can’t say that I’ll miss being at this symposium this year, but I will read the coverage. I would love to be surprised by what I read. But I’m not counting on it.