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Once A Year, Cancer Research News Comes In A Flood, Not A Trickle

News about cancer therapies usually comes out in medical journals with the regular rhythm of an IV drip. But every now and then information comes out in a flood.

That's the case this weekend. The American Society of Clinical Oncologyis holding its 50th annual meeting in Chicago. The convention typically attracts 30,000 attendees, making it one of the biggest cancer meetings of the year. And the amount of new information must be bewildering for even the most intrepid doctors.

The society says it received 5,530 proposed presentations for the meeting. Of those, 2,900 will get a hearing at the meeting as a talk or a poster. And another 2,200 will be published online. Clearly this process is nowhere as selective as getting a paper published in a major journal, so caveat lector.

And the choices of what to pay attention to are so staggering, even the organizers seem to be gobsmacked. "We have a wonderful group of talks this year," Dr. Gini Fleming, chair of the cancer education committee, writes on the meeting's web page. Duly noted.

Some presentations may rise above the noise with help from press releases. For example, the University of Colorado in Denver draws attention to a study conducted there that concludes there's no reason to keep giving statins to ward off heart disease to patients who are in the late stages of cancer. In fact, this study showed that people taken off the widely used cholesterol-lowering drugs had a better quality of life and saved money.

A few presentations at the meeting get singled out by the New England Journal of Medicine, which has opted to publish research as it is presented at the meeting. Those papers include updated results for the medication ibrutinib, which the US Food and Drug Administration approved for chronic lymphoid leukemia (CLL) in February.

A new study tested ibrutinib head-to-head with another drug, ofatumumab, in patients who had previously been treated for CLL but had relapsed or hadn't responded to the traditional treatment. The study found that 90 percent of the patients given ibrutinib lived for at least one year, compared with 81 percent of the people given the alternative treatment.

A second report from the meeting, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds that women with a specific type of breast cancer were less likely to have a recurrence when treated with the drug exemestane instead of tamoxifen. In this case, 91 percent of women given the exemestane lived at least five years, compared with 87 percent of the women with tamoxifen. We are not talking big breakthrough here.

The meeting is a reminder that cancer therapy rarely improves in leaps and bounds, but rather in small increments. That's a challenge for journalists, since small steps are generally not newsworthy. Yet we do want to recognize advances in cancer treatment, because they can add up over time.

The real test is not whether a study makes headlines, but whether the 30,000 or so practitioners gathering in Chicago are able to find new ideas that help improve the lives of people with cancer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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