05/31/2016 09:54 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Meeting on June 3: Why National Medical Conferences Are Important to Patients

In Chicago on June 3, the international cancer society ASCO convenes its annual meeting. With over 35,000 cancer specialists attending from many countries, scientific advances of the year will be revealed which will change how many patients with cancer will be treated. Expected are advances in breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and leukemia, as well as in many other tumor types and also in management of symptoms and care of survivors. Oncologists are hoping for new methods of cancer prevention and screening to be announced as well.

Why is this important to know about? Many patients and their families are challenged by serious illnesses: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, bone and joint diseases, among so many more. And these patients and their families await new advances that can give them hope for better control and even cure of their conditions.

Results of investigations and trials are not announced randomly throughout the year, however. They are most often revealed at national medical conferences, which often, as with ASCO and cancer breakthroughs, embargo press releases or scientific discussions of the results until the physicians and investigators present their findings at the time of the national meeting. By this policy, more people attend the meetings and the conference gains more importance. Of course, patients would like to see the results sooner, not only during the five days of the meeting as with ASCO, but organizational policies prevail.

If patients are aware of these important national meetings and conferences, they can be looking for announcements important for the care of their illnesses at the time of the meetings. The press releases at the time of the meeting can provide patients with suggestions about new treatments, which can be discussed with their doctors.

Starting on June 3, for example, the ASCO meeting will provide information about how long breast cancer patients should receive treatments after their surgery to increase their cure rate. The best chemotherapy for certain types of breast cancer will be identified. Presentations will identify gene mutations that predict which treatment an individual patient should receive (personalized, or precision medicine). So if a patient is getting breast cancer therapy, they can look around June 3 for press releases and news articles about these medical practice-changing breakthroughs.

During the time I spend at this meeting, I will be looking for discussions of results that will change how I will treat my patients, and how I can make these available to my patients in the context of health care reforms (which can limit availability of new treatments). Also, I will share these advances with my colleagues through articles I will write for Medscape (a national website for physicians) and Oncology Issues (the national medical publication for doctors published by the Association of Community Cancer Centers) so that more oncologists can give better care for their patients as well. As this shows, medical publications such as these rapidly spread the word about medical advances discussed at national medical meetings, even if your doctor is not attending the meeting.

Here are Dr. Cary's important tips for you about medical conferences:

• If you or family members have an illness (like cancer for example), always look for news articles or press releases about your disease and discuss them with your doctor. See if new treatments may be appropriate for you.
• Ask your doctor which national conferences reveal new treatments for your disease, and when they occur. At those times, watch the newspaper carefully to find news articles about breakthroughs.
• Contact the sponsoring organizations (for example, contact ASCO) to find our how you can access announcements and press releases about breakthroughs or advances. See my book Surviving American Medicine to find out the websites of these organizations for the major diseases and how to contact them.
• After the conference, ask your physician if there were any new advances which she/he has heard about that might help you. You can also ask how she/he learns about advances, by attending the conference or in medical newsletters/newspapers or by attending a "Best of the Conference" meeting or web presentation. Make sure your doctor knows you are interested in any relevant advances. This is also an indirect way to make sure that your physician is keeping up to date.

Medical advances are coming more rapidly and are more widely covered by news agencies. Make sure you are engaged, and make sure you have a physician who is up to date in knowing about all the new progress. Your life could depend on it!