Katrina Kahl, Former Communications Officer

Attending SABCS for the first time, I thought I would share with everyone my impressions as a newcomer. I have to say that I thought I was well prepared for the onslaught of pharmaceutical research that would surely be awaiting my arrival in San Antonio. But, I did not realize that pharmaceutical research, pharmaceutical companies, and pharmaceutical scientists would dominate the symposium. As naive as it may sound, I really thought there would be more people talking about the big picture—where we are at, where we need to go, and how we can get there.

I also thought that at least a few presentations would be made about environmental risk factors. Unfortunately, it seems that “environmental factors” and “lifestyle factors” are interchangeable, as the only mention of “true” prevention (not chemoprevention) was in the form of dietary factors and weight maintenance. Alas, it seems the only way to truly prevent breast cancer is to consume massive amounts of green tea (Powell Brown’s advice from an advocate meeting), eat a low-fat diet, avoid red meat (although, again this wasn’t mentioned in the main symposium, only at advocate meetings), and maintain a normal weight. Imagine my surprise when beef and cheese sandwiches were served at the poster sessions, night after night.

I was also shocked that the majority of the presentations came from men. In fact, the whole symposium is dedicated to one man, Charles Coltman, Jr. I guess I found this shocking because I work with so many women at BCA, and we hear from so many women affected by the disease, that I was under the impression that women were the driving force behind the breast cancer movement. So, where were they? Well, they were in the advocate meetings and at the information booths, desperately trying to talk to the researchers, doctors, and pharmaceutical representatives about the needs of women with breast cancer.

At the advocate meeting I attended I was shocked to hear from a leading researcher that the major problem we have in the United States is that we have to produce drugs with minimal side effects. This researcher went on to say that even water has side effects, if you drink enough of it. When an advocate challenged him, stating that the first trials of tamoxifen as a preventative measure led to the deaths of some healthy women, he implied that the women in the trial were not really healthy, because they were at “high risk” for the disease. From this small interaction, I thought, more female voices, fewer male ones.

Yet, I found myself totally intimidated by the whole situation, unable to ask a single question. I elected to keep my voice out of the discussion because, for whatever reason, I had already decided that the researchers knew more than I did, that the questions in my mind weren’t worth asking. I left the symposium feeling grateful for the many women that have had the courage to speak up, with a new awareness of how difficult it is to be challenged in a room full of thousands of people about beliefs that haven’t been “established by the medical community.”