ASCO strides provide cold comfort

June 5, 2014 – 3:38 pm | By Randy Osborne | No comments yet

maskThis isn’t exactly “funny” – nothing about cancer is – but during the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago I couldn’t help noticing the multitude of hand-sanitizer vending devices posted around McCormick Place. They seemed … odd there. “Scrub some alcohol gel on your hands, so you don’t catch cold! Oh, cancer? Not a lot we can do about that. We’re working on it.”

So they are. The number of abstracts submitted and attendees set records this year. I’m not always assigned to cover ASCO, but I’ve done my share, and 2014’s meeting seemed uncommonly active.

Of course, those antibacterial goo squirters can be found pretty much everywhere now. They show up in airports, grocery stores, anywhere the masses gather. Hence it was no surprise to find them in McCormick.

I didn’t need ‘em, though. I had a small bottle of Walgreen’s clear, fragrant weaponry in my pocket (with vitamin E, the label says. Vitamin E helps everything).

Still, I washed my hands at every chance. For the conference, I switched from contact lenses to glasses, having read that the eyes are the main portal for viruses to enter. “Squint when you are in crowded places,” one source recommended, which seemed ridiculous. I did it anyway. Behind my glasses, I was Clint Eastwood.

No – I was Howard Hughes. I had a can of Lysol in my hotel room.

And, by the third day of ASCO, I had a cold.

Lynn Yoffee, BioWorld’s executive editor, told me she never gets sick unless she travels. Others have said the same. One friend blamed the typical conference schedule of coffee in the morning to get moving, followed by a long day of little sleep, and alcohol at night to chill out. Repeat. My own mental metaphor tends toward the jet that got me here. Coffee: Rev the engines. Conference: We’re at cruising altitude. Late-afternoon sauvignon blanc: that blessed moment when the wheels touch the runway and throttled engines roar, then purr on our way to the gate. Ah. 

Anyway, add to the whipsaw daily grind of conference-going the exposure to coughs, sneezes and much-handled doorknobs, and an ordinary person’s immune system has not much of a chance. Immuno-oncology, a much weightier matter than avoiding the sniffles, took center stage once again at ASCO this year. More than 200 bugs can cause the common cold, though usually it’s rhinovirus, coronavirus or – rarer – respiratory syncytial virus (hello, Synagis). Cancer, too, is not just one disease, as plenty of ASCO speakers hastened to point out.

Mulling over the contrasts is pretty hard to avoid.

Right now I am armed with Dayquil, Nyquil and Afrin, and feeling … just barely OK, but not prone to complain. I took a train this afternoon from Chicago to Wicker Park, visited bookstores, and walked in the sun. More than a lot of people can do.

For weeks to come, I’ll be thinking about what I saw at ASCO. What the doctors and scientists said from their lecterns. All the slides of data, and all the people they hope to help with the medicine behind the new findings.

They’ve got a lot on their hands.


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