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An advocate's experience during the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium

BY GUEST BLOGGER | DECEMBER 16, 2013

Michelle Esser
Breast cancer advocacy can take many forms: outreach in the community; lobbying on Capitol Hill for research funding; acting as a consumer advocate in grant review; or working with scientists to develop a research study. Regardless of the form of advocacy you practice, the Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation's advocacy program at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) is something you must consider.

Although I have been an advocate for over five years now, this December was my first time attending SABCS and I was honored to attend as an Alamo Breast Cancer Foundation (ABCF) Patient Advocate. It was an amazing experience.

All Alamo patient advocates arrived on Monday for orientation and dinner led by the ladies of ABCF. It was a great opportunity to meet fellow advocates, including some international advocates, learn about our schedule and prepare for the days ahead. Those days would be very full, starting by 7 or 8 a.m. and going until 9:30 p.m. at night. On Tuesday morning, advocates attended the Project LEAD educational session with fabulous speakers Drs. Gil Welch and Dennis Slamon who gave us a preview of some of the information we would hear at SABCS.

From Dr. Welch we learned about his recent research into screening mammography and overdiagnosis, which he would present the following morning at SABCS. His findings would be called "controversial" by some and sure to spark debate. Tuesday afternoon advocates attended a minimum of two of the Editha Kapoor Breast Cancer Educational Sessions with an optional evening program as well on breast cancer genetics. After a 7 a.m. educational breakfast session on Wednesday with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), advocates headed to the official opening of SABCS.

From Wednesday on, the convention center was packed with over 10,000 advocates, breast cancer researchers and treating physicians. The days were a mix of plenary lectures, general sessions, case discussions, honorary lectures, poster presentations and receptions. During the general sessions, selected speakers presented in 15 minute increments recent results of their research -- unveiled for the first time at SABCS. The studies covered a variety of topics from surgery, to treatment, to reducing breast cancer risk, to quality of life issues, although the latter two categories were definitely fewer in number than the first two.

At the end of each day, ABCF presented their "hot topic" mentor sessions which featured prominent doctors and researchers who summarized the highlights of the day and explained the research in more detail, putting it into context and using easily understandable language. Advocates also had the opportunity to ask questions after the presentations. Although developed initially for just the ABCF scholarship recipients, this highly acclaimed program now attracts a couple hundred SABCS attendees every night who want to hear and understand the day's news. This session is also a way for the ABCF advocates to understand more about the "hot topic" assigned to them, on which they will write and submit a newspaper article-style summary as part of their scholarship requirements. At the last mentor session, all ABCF advocates "graduated" receiving a certificate and photo to commemorate the occasion.

SABCS is something all advocates should experience, and I highly recommend applying to and attending through ABCF. SABCS is an educational experience, providing updates on recent research news which advocates can take back to their respective communities. Advocates can meet and interact with the researchers themselves to gain more understanding and clarity. It is also a great opportunity to network with those same researchers as well as fellow advocates. And last but certainly not least, I cannot say enough about the wonderful ladies of ABCF. They were such gracious hosts who made all the advocates feel welcomed and supported. Their passion and enthusiasm was contagious. As a new SABCS attendee, it was nice to be surrounded with friendly faces who provided direction and guidance when needed.

Interested advocates apply in August to receive ABCF scholarship funds to attend SABCS. To date, ABCF has paid for 491 advocates to attend SABCS. For more information on the ABCF's advocacy program and application requirements, please visit alamobreastcancer.org/patient-advocate-program.

Michelle Esser is a seven-year breast cancer survivor from Pennsylvania. She currently works as Program Manager for Research and Advocacy at Young Survival Coalition.

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