Call for a Move or Boycott of Big Texas Cancer Meeting

Docs Won't Attend in Person

Nick Mulcahy

September 20, 2021

Oncologists at the University of San Francisco, California (UCSF) are calling for this year's San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) to be moved out of Texas in response to the state's new law banning abortions after 6 weeks.

Held annually in December, SABCS is the world's largest breast cancer meeting and welcomes thousands of attendees every year.

The law banning abortions after 6 weeks, at which time a woman may not even realize that she is pregnant, has been described as the most restrictive in the United States. It also enables private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against people who assist a pregnant person seeking an abortion in violation of the ban.

If the meeting remains in Texas this year, then UCSF's Laura Esserman, MD, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Cancer Center, has said that she and other university faculty and professionals from elsewhere will attend only online — a form of boycotting the in-person event.

Esserman and UCSF colleague Mary Helen Barcellos-Hoff, PhD, professor of radiation oncology, have emailed conference leaders encouraging them to move the meeting, according to a press statement issued by UCSF.

SABCS organizers told Medscape Medical News via email that they "are having serious discussions about this matter" and will update the public via their website and social media channels.

"It's a terrible law, and it is absolutely not protective of women. I think that if Texas officials understood that when they pass laws inhospitable to women, we will not hold a major conference about women's health in their state," said Esserman.

Esserman received support for the idea to move the meeting earlier this month from peers on Twitter.

"In light of the Texas law that prohibits abortion past 6 weeks of pregnancy AND promotes vigilantism, directly harming women and their caregivers, the 2021 SABCS breast cancer meeting should be moved out of Texas to a place that supports Women's rights and public health #sabcs," tweeted Esserman on September 5.

https://twitter.com/DrLauraEsserman/status/1434760678133297156

The post generated more than 3300 likes and retweets and 40-plus comments from readers, many of whom were healthcare professionals.

Supporters of the proposed move included Michael Feldman, MD, PhD, pathologist, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Sarah Sammons, MD, breast medical oncologist, Duke Cancer Center, Durham, North Carolina; Anjali Thawani, MD, breast surgeon, Evanston, Illinois; Debora Barton, MD, Carisma Therapeutics, Philadelphia; Jane Hui, MD, surgical oncologist, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Erica Leith Mitchell, MD, surgeon, University of Tennessee, Memphis; and Rebecca Shatsky, MD, breast medical oncologist, University of California, San Diego.

Support for boycotting in-person attendance is growing nationally, Esserman said in the press statement, which also highlighted an "additional concern" about Texas laws prohibiting mandated masking and asking for vaccine status. Conference organizers said local ordinances will be used to require masking.

Notably, a Twitter search using #SABCS21, the meeting's hashtag, indicates that COVID 19 — and not the restrictive abortion law — is the primary worry of would-be meeting attendees as of the last week or so.

Some said the combination of the two issues was influential in their decision not to attend in person.

Kelly Shanahan, MD, a former ob/gyn living with metastatic breast cancer in South Lake Tahoe, California tweeted: "It's a hybrid model this year. I was originally going in person but will not now because of their COVID behaviors and now this [the abortion law]. I will tune in virtually but I will not spend the $1500 on the hotel room, the hundreds of $$ on food and drink and Xmas presents. #SayNoToTX #SABCS21."

Shanahan also replied to Esserman's move-the-meeting-out-of-Texas tweet: "100% agree."

UCSF's Barcellos-Hoff believes moving the meeting would be a high-profile happening. "I think moving a meeting of that size would have an impact, largely because of the visibility of scientists who oppose the law."

First organized in 1977, SABCS is jointly sponsored by the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the American Association for Cancer Research, and Baylor College of Medicine.

Nick Mulcahy is an  award-winning  senior journalist for Medscape, focusing on oncology, and can be reached at nmulcahy@medscape.net  and on Twitter:  @MulcahyNick

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