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How to survive a presidential session of ESMO (and speak to over 6,000 people)

I was just about to leave for my summer holiday. In fact, I was at the airport with my wife and daughter when the phone rang. I already knew the call would come, and I was awaiting it with anxiety/fear and excitement in equal measures. On the other end of the line was the person in charge of the worldwide development of one of the most promising immune therapy drugs in the world. The message was very simple: “Enrique, the study meets its primary objective. We’re going to send it to the European congress”. He didn’t say much, but I immediately knew what it meant.

He was talking about the bladder cancer study with the largest number of patients ever (IMvigor130), the first to combine classic chemotherapy with immune therapy, and the first to prove the combination superior to chemotherapy alone.

I boarded the plane with a jumbled sense of happiness and responsibility. And fretting over how I might swing a number of conference calls and phone calls and stay tuned in to my e-mail even while on holiday.

The best part came later. The Scientific Committee of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) decided the data were so important that the study should be presented at the presidential session of the ESMO congress.

Imagine the responsibility involved in presenting and disclosing for the first time the findings of a study that can change the life and hopes of thousands of patients all over the world!

Five weeks before the congress

The five weeks leading up to the congress were crazy. Dozens of videoconferences and conference calls, a meeting in New York with the people who draw up the American bladder cancer treatment guides to present the data to them so they could bring out their objections. Reviews and more reviews of the data to present and discussions of the best way to depict them on slides. There were also tapings for the international media and press, for digital media, and dozens of invitations from colleague after colleague asking for a sneak preview of the data and the chance to discuss it.

In the middle of it all, I got a vaguely “threatening” e-mail message and call from the congress secretariat telling me to keep pre-presentation talk of the study off social networks. How could I keep anyone from breaking the embargo with the findings if it was already public knowledge that the study was going to be presented?

And the first day of the congress arrived, and meetings with the press came faster and faster. Interactions with colleagues tumbled past. I wore a nervous smile as the requests went on, as fast and furious as the encouraging pats I got on the back.

The plenary session posed a daunting challenge. I walked into the hall where there were 6,500 chairs arrayed in front of me and, at the end of a long aisle, a speaker’s podium. More than six giant screens, TV cameras, microphones and lots more. Anybody would have hesitated at the sight.

And at last the great day arrived. I’ll never forget it. It was the 30th of September, 2019, at 5:48 pm according to the programme. Actually, it was 6:10, because we were running late. I had just 12 minutes. I did it in 14 (sorry), but I nailed it!

Funnily enough, when you’re up there, everything happens in slow motion. You’re aware of a lot of things: a combination of heat, nerves, sweat, responsibility, excitement, fear of failure, but most of all a desire to make a good job of it.

I’m dedicating this post to all of you who were supportive friends during those five weeks. Forgive me if I got a little unbearable, but I think the opportunity was worth it!


Dr. Enrique Grande, head of Medical Oncology, MD Anderson Madrid