The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting always gets a lot of attention.  From oncologists, from scientists, from advocacy organizations and importantly from Stage IV cancer patients, including me.


Because it is one of the preeminent meetings that occur each year where the latest in clinical trial results are released.  For Stage IV cancer patients, these preliminary results help set the stage, following appropriate medical discussions with their MD(s), for potential new therapeutic strategies via clinical trial participation.

Although the data released is often only preliminary and in need of confirmation (and in fact it is important to note that data is not always confirmed in subsequent larger trials), in the "currently incurable" Stage IV world where I and thousands of my fellow cancer survivors live… this preliminary data takes on many forms of importance: physical, mental and emotional.

In conjunction with medical discussions with an appropriately experienced medical team, this preliminary data gives strategic guidance… it gives tactical guidance… it gives HOPE.  Yes, it is only preliminary data – but Stage IV patients often do not have the luxury of waiting for full confirmation before taking preliminary trial data into consideration as we make medical decisions.

All of this added together gives a weight to the preliminary data released at conferences such as ASCO – a level of gravity that few outside of the Stage IV patient population truly appreciate. In conjunction with this weight, is a feeling of hope when signs of any potential steps forward are seen.

When the ASCO abstracts were released on May 18, word quickly started to spread through the colorectal cancer (CRC) patient community.  All eyes focused on Abstract #3502. Was it true?  Were there really signs of significant immunotherapy progress against the "MSS" subtype of CRC – the subtype of CRC that 95% of Stage IV patients have?  A disease which has so far proven very resistant to the amazing immunotherapy progress being made in other cancer types?

A feeling of hope swept through the patient community, especially as word subsequently spread that based upon the Phase 1 trial data, the developing company was moving directly into a Phase 3 clinical trial (skipping a Phase 2 trial) to prepare for the fastest possible route for potential submission to the FDA.  Regardless of the final trial data specifics… the hope generated by this ASCO abstract and the drug development decisions based upon its trial results had a very significant emotional impact on the patient population.

The data from this study gives scientific insight… it gives scientific guidance… it gives scientific hope… to those that need it the most:  us, in the Stage IV patient population.

Lives have been changed for the better by this study due to this hope, lives that have not and may not ever actually take the new therapy.  Even with its small  (23 patient) size still in need of confirmation, that is a mighty powerful study indeed.

That is the often unrecognized power of ASCO.

Dr. Tom Marsilje is a 20-year oncology drug discovery scientist with "currently incurable" stage IV colon cancer. He also writes a personal blog on life at the intersection of being both a cancer patient and researcher "Adventures in Living Terminally Optimistic," a science column for Fight Colorectal Cancer "The Currently Incurable Scientist", and posts science and advocacy updates to Twitter @CurrentIncurSci. This guest column appears on Diagnosis: Cancer through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over 750,000 patients and caregivers.

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