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All together now

Next month, the seventh Gathering Around Cancer conference takes place in Croke Park, Dublin. David Lynch talks to two organisers about what delegates can expect

Since it began in 2013, the Gathering Around Cancer event has developed and changed significantly, two of the principal organisers have told the Medical Independent (MI).

Now in its seventh year, the event will run from the 7-8 November in Croke Park, Dublin.

“It’s a concept that we first proposed maybe eight years ago, to have it around the Gathering (The Gathering Ireland 2013) to try and bring Irish people back from abroad,” Prof David Gallagher, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Consultant Medical Geneticist, St James’s Hospital, told MI.

“And we tried to do that through cancer care and research. There are a lot of either first-generation Irish and Irish diaspora involved in high level cancer research around the world. So over the past years, we have been gathering in a community that has grown in number every year here in Croke Park to discuss research, to discuss best-quality care, and to try and develop new collaborations.”

Unique

From those initial meetings, Prof Gallagher believes that the Gathering has now become one of the most important events on the oncology calendar.

“I think it is unique because it covers a very broad range of topics in a very short space of time,” he said.

“And the feedback from delegates in the past is that they find it very educational because of that. It’s a unique kind of networking event and an opportunity for collaboration in the Irish community and individuals who are involved in cancer care.

Prof David Gallagher

“Not just doctors and nurses and researchers, but also the pharmaceutical companies. Ultimately, we all work together in different ways to try and improve care for Irish patients. This is, on a national level, the only setting where everybody comes together.”

Fellow member of the organising committee Prof John McCaffrey, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, said the Gathering had become “the national de facto medical oncology meeting”.

Prof John McCaffrey

“It has a lot of input from the other disciplines, whether it is radiation or surgical oncology, and it’s an Irish meeting that borrows specialists from abroad and particularly focuses on Irish people in training centres abroad and seeing how their work and research is developing,” Prof McCaffrey told MI.

Strategy

Against the backdrop of this event is a series of important changes and developments in cancer public policy. It is two years since the launch of the National Cancer Strategy 2017-2026. How do the organisers of the Gathering think progress is going in implementing the proposals?

“It is not going very well,” according to Prof Gallagher.

“And it just comes down to funding. I think it is a very good document and it outlines what we need to do as a country to keep pace with the rest of the world and to maintain a high-quality oncology service. But we are not really succeeding in doing that in many areas.”

So what is delaying progress? Is it the ‘recruitment and retention crisis’ of consultants in the Irish health system?

“That’s definitely an issue,” said Prof Gallagher. However, he added there are underlying cost issues in oncology that are broader and more international in their scope.

“Trying to pay for innovative treatments is also a real challenge,” he said.

“But you know, this challenge is not unique to Ireland; other countries are struggling with this too. A lot of the new medications that are coming out are expensive and we have to be able to identity patients who need them.

“I think a huge deficiency in Ireland [is] we don’t even have a genetics laboratory in the country. So we have to send all our tests abroad at considerable expense to get
genetic testing done. So even something as basic as that, we just don’t have.”

Genetics

There is an important session on genetics on the second day of the event at Croke Park.

“Well, genetics is increasingly becoming central to all cancer care,” said Prof Gallagher.

“Ultimately, it will be central to all medical care. But cancer care is a little bit ahead. Broadly speaking, there are two themes within genetics — there is tumour genetics and then core DNA analysis.

“Tumour genetics attempts to identify targets that would allows us to better select our treatment for our patients. There is one session dedicated to that.

“Then, I guess probably the main session of the conference, where we have some of the global leaders in genetics coming to speak, is around hereditary genetics and what causes people to be predisposed to cancer, and can we identify that before they get the disease and prevent it.”

Prof Gallagher has also raised concerns over challenges in resources in genetics in Ireland. See news, page 6 ▸

Experts

Other events on the second day (Friday, 8 November) include sessions on updates in medical oncology. Prof Gallagher said the “goal of education is obviously hugely important in oncology. Cancer care and oncology are moving forward very, very quickly and a lot of us put considerable effort into keeping ourselves up to date,” he added.

“Many of us are travelling to international conferences and what we try and do, we get experts in each area to summarise what has been the area of progress in the last year and really just to make that information available to people who perhaps haven’t travelled to these international conferences.”

On the first day of the conference, there is the usual ‘Irish investigators abroad’ session, but this will be followed by a new nursing focuses topic.

“So, broadly speaking, there is a session [Irish investigators abroad] that has become the most popular over the years,” Prof McCaffrey told MI.

“We particularly went out of our way to get feedback from the audience and delegates last year and this year, we are changing things to respond to what we have heard. So now we are also having a section on specialty nursing.

“So we have that for the first time; we have two nurses, who are PhDs, so they are both doctors, one talking about prostate cancer and masculinity, the other palliative care and oncology partnership. So that whole session is on nursing specialty. We [also] have community intervention and we have genetics in that session.

“So hopefully the delegates who have asked for that will find benefit in that.”

Ms Averil Power, Irish Cancer Society

Asked what delegates in attendance will gain from these Thursday sessions, Prof McCaffrey said “the audience is largely speaking medical, nursing and allied disciplines. The nurses felt that we have not given them specifically nursing-focused issues, and that is what we are hoping to do here, but I think it will also appeal to a lot of non-nursing delegates.”

There are other changes to the usual first-day agenda.

Network

“The final Thursday session has also changed,” said Prof McCaffrey.

“This year it is about what’s new in oncology. It’s traditionally been a topical piece. But this year we are separating it into what is new in radiation oncology what is new in immune therapy, surgery, cancer imaging. Hopefully there is something in there for everybody.”

Looking back over the years, Prof McCaffrey said the meeting in 2013 was meant to be a once-off.

“But we have found that providing [an event for] people from our diaspora and people who are home-grown, it has been enormously beneficial. I suppose a lot of the Irish people from abroad who present we have known throughout the years, who were junior doctors or medical students even, and to see their development and breadth of knowledge that they are dealing with and the research and bringing it back to us.

“I think it is because of the recognition that the Irish really do punch above our weight.”

Is there much networking and new initiatives that arise from a meeting such as the Gathering?

“Oh, for sure,” said Prof McCaffrey.

“The meeting is very well supported by the pharmaceutical industry, but also by philanthropic societies and by information technology groups dealing with apps and stuff, so they are there in the main networking room for the coffee breaks and lunchtime.

“Literally, so many people have told us that ideas arose in the coffee break during the Gathering. So you could have someone in the States who is doing something, who has an idea for a fellowship for one of our people working in the Mater hospital, and next thing two years from now they are over in their lab. That has happened. So it’s definitely a rich environment [for new collaborations].”

For more information, visit www.gatheringaroundcancer.com

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