This past April, I was fortunate to be selected to participate in the Scientist↔Survivor Program at the Annual Meeting for the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Washington, DC, representing BCAN. The AACR was founded in 1907 and has over 34,000 members. The organization is focused promoting high quality, innovative cancer research to accelerate progress toward prevention and cure of cancer. The 2013 Annual Meeting, “Personalizing Cancer Care Through Discovery Science” was the organization’s 104th annual meeting.
The Scientist↔Survivor Program brings together patient advocates, cancer survivors, and scientists to meet and interact over several days in the context of the Annual Meeting. For the patient advocates, the program provides a valuable opportunity to develop a stronger background in cancer research and stay updated on advances in basic research, drug development, and clinical and translational research.
My group included advocates from across the United States and around the world, representing different cancer interests including brain, breast, cervical, colon, lymphoma, ovarian, pancreatic, and prostate. Each participant presented a poster addressing the missions and goals of his or her advocacy organization, which allowed us to share experiences and learn from one another.
We were encouraged to attend the general research sessions featuring leaders in the fields of cancer genomics, immunology, epigenetics, targeted therapy, molecular diagnostics and others spoke about new developments and challenges. The opening plenary session featured Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, also spoke on strategies to continue advancing cancer research in the midst of budget cuts with sequestration. He also described the status of the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), efforts to promote clinical trials based on precision medicine and improve the use of targeted agents that are already available, as well as the Provocative Questions Initiative, which includes a list of 24 important questions from the research community to stimulate the NCI’s research communities to use resources in effective and imaginative ways to answer the questions.
While many of the general sessions were aimed at a researcher audience, the Scientist↔Survivor Program also offered special sessions tailored for a non-medical audience. These sessions gave me a greater understanding of important areas in cancer research including precision medicine, cancer genomics, tumor microenvironment, and biomarkers. We also had an opportunity to meet with scientists and researchers on an informal basis, and were able to discuss many of the exciting advances in cancer research.
During the meeting on Monday, April 8, we joined nearly 200 organizations and an estimated 10,000 people including BCAN staff for the Rally for Medical Research outside the Carnegie Library in Washington, DC. The rally, moderated by Cokie Roberts, featured many speakers including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md), Maura Tierney, AACR CEO, and many survivors and advocates who stressed the importance of funding for medical research. The primary message was: “Together for More Progress, More Hope, More Life.”
With over 18,000 researchers from around the world attending the AACR Annual Meeting, I am encouraged that there will be more findings shared and advances in cancer research. A major “take away” from this meeting for me is seeing how complicated cancer is as a disease. Cancer is a disease of genomes and genomic changes and alterations. We are entering an era of “big data” with genome sequencing of tumors is becoming more available for cancer patients. However, not only is cancer is a disease of genomes, but it is also a disease of epigenomes involving whether genes are turned on or off, and other characteristics of the tumor microenvironment like blood supply for a tumor. Each of these areas presents an opportunity for further research to find effective treatments and cures.
More funding is needed to advance research, especially at a time when federal funding for cancer research is being cut. Funding for research on the science and genetics of bladder cancer has been particularly limited. It is my hope that BCAN can advocate for increased funding for bladder cancer research. In the meantime, bladder cancer survivors should encourage their legislators to support greater funding for cancer research in general, and for bladder cancer research in particular.