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Jul 8, 2021

Dr. David Freyer, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Southern California; Dr. Michael Roth, director of the AYA Program and Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; and onco-fertility expert Dr. Leslie Appiah, associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Colorado Anschutz, weigh in on the challenges and advances in care for adolescents and young adults with cancer and survivors.


ASCO Daily News: Welcome to the ASCO Daily News Podcast. I'm Geraldine Carroll, a reporter for the ASCO Daily News. On today's episode, we'll discuss the unique challenges facing adolescents and young adults with cancer.

I'm delighted to welcome three experts for this discussion. Dr. David Freyer is a professor of clinical pediatrics, medicine, and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. Dr. Michael Roth is director of the AYA Program and Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program at The MD Anderson Cancer Center. And Dr. Leslie Appiah is associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Fertility Preservation and Reproductive Late Effects Program at the University of Colorado and Children's Hospital Colorado.

My guests report no conflicts of interest relating to our discussion today, and full disclosures relating to all episodes of the podcast are available on our transcripts at Dr. Freyer, Dr. Appiah, and Dr. Roth, it's great to have you on the podcast today.

Dr. David Freyer: Thanks, Geraldine. It's really great to be here.

Dr. Leslie Appiah: Thank you for having us. It's our pleasure.

Dr. Michael Roth: Yeah, really great to be here.

ASCO Daily News: So today we're highlighting some of the issues and strategies you all presented during the ASCO Annual Meeting that addressed equity issues and strategies to improve outcomes for AYAs. Our listeners will find a link to the presentation in the transcript of this episode.

Dr. Freyer, there are approximately 89,000 AYA patients diagnosed with cancer in this country each year. Tell us about the challenges they confront and why they're so vulnerable to health care disparities.

Dr. David Freyer: Absolutely. I'd like to say, first of all, thanks, Geraldine, for the opportunity for us to participate in this podcast. I think, as your question points out, AYAs who developed cancer are in a sort of double jeopardy, because not only of the challenges of cancer, but also their life stage where there's so much change and vulnerability.

Normal changes for AYA life stage differ across the spectrum. 15 to 39 years is a very broad range. And at the younger age, I would say in the 15 to 21-year-old group, these challenges commonly involve education. It's finishing high school, possibly education or trade school, pursuing a career or vocation, expanding and reorienting their social network from their nuclear family, experiencing serious relationships for the first time, and then starting to explore intimacy and sexuality. For that younger group, self-image and physical appearance is very, very important. And there's overall a move toward greater personal autonomy and independence.

When you get into the middle years, roughly [ages] 22 to 29, I would say that the issues begin to take on a financial character. It's becoming financially independent, paying for housing, starting or maintaining their own health insurance, maybe having their first meaningful employment. And a great many in this group are saddled with substantial debt from previous education. And then in this age group, they're starting to identify significant partners for the first time.

And then finally, in the later years, roughly [ages] 30 to 39, the concerns really begin to focus on career advancement, maintaining a home life, starting or building families, raising children, taking on new financial obligations of adulthood like owning a home. And interestingly and importantly, some in that latter phase, we're seeing more and more, are beginning to feel the pinch from above as they're beginning to take care of unwell or older dependent parents who also need the financial support of this normally productive age group.

So there's this developmental continuum. And to add cancer on top of all of that is, to say the least, highly disruptive. So even the experience of being treated for AYA cancers that have a good prognosis, and many do nowadays, it still interrupts education, delays career starts and return to work, upends their social networks, [and] undercuts their independence. They revert to being dependent on their nuclear family, and they have enormous financial burden. And then on top of all of that, of course, many of these patients are dealing with long-term health problems, because they have late effects from their treatment.

And so to get your point about why this is an equity issue, I think that this session is perfect for this 2021 ASCO meeting actually, because AYAs, it's a cancer population that's defined by age. It's characterized by life stage dependent challenges. And so for that reason, they're systematically disadvantaged in ways that other cancer populations are not. And that's the definition of health care disparity. So they need special support in all these areas.

And as a final note, I would say that AYAs who represent other disadvantaged cancer populations, such as low income or racial and ethnic minorities, I mean, they're actually in triple jeopardy, because they're at the intersection of their age, cancer, and also their background social status.

ASCO Daily News: Absolutely. AYAs confront a host of disparities. AYAs frequently identify fertility threat as a major concern, and many patients have suffered fertility loss due to the effects of treatment. Thankfully, there continues to be much progress in fertility preservation, but not everyone has access to this care.

Dr. Appiah, you've done a lot of work in onco-fertility and have even engaged with legislators to help pass bills mandating insurance coverage of fertility preservation for patients with cancer. Can you tell us about best practices in fertility preservation and your concerns that not all patients and survivors have access to available technologies?

Dr. Leslie Appiah: Thank you, Geraldine, for that question. As you stated, with 80,000 plus AYA patients being diagnosed a year, we know that there are approximately 100,000 survivors. And so survivors are living longer. Up to 75% of them will experience at least one adverse event or late effect of their cancer therapy.

Infertility, as you stated, is the most prevalent, one of the most discussed reproductive late effects in the literature, affecting up to 12% and 66% of female and childhood cancer survivors respectively. And then in addition to the infertility or fertility-related effects, there are other reproductive late effects that cancer survivors experience.

And so as in many aspects of adolescence and young adult care, disparities also exist in onco-fertility or fertility preservation. The governing bodies of our societies--so the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the American Society of Clinical Oncology--have all put out consensus statements describing how we should be caring for this population and how we should be providing equal care to these patients (DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2018.78.1914).

And all of the societies or the guidelines recommend that physicians inform every patient of reproductive age about the risk of therapies to fertility and the options for fertility preservation. And by reproductive age, we mean from birth through, typically, for women age 42 and our male counterparts can be fertile much later into 50s and 60s.

And so all of these patients should be counseled about the risks and then referred or offered the opportunity to see a reproductive specialist for further counseling, and that this really should occur before any treatment is provided. We know that once patients receive any cancer therapies that our options are limited in terms of what we can provide them for fertility preservation.

So this conversation should occur regardless of the patient's age, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, or health care team bias. And these discussions should continue into survivorship, because even at the end of therapy, there may be some options for these patients.

Despite recommendations, however, less than 50% of patients ever recall having these discussions with their providers, and then less than 30% of patients go on to use fertility preservation therapies. This disparity is sometimes due to information overload. Many times the patients don't recall the discussion, even though the discussion was had. But really when we look at the data, many times they are not being offered this information.

We know that in terms of disparities, men are more often referred for counseling and referred for fertility preservation therapies because of the idea that it's easier to bank. And for those men who are feeling well and are of age, sperm banking can be a simple process. But many of these patients are very ill, and so extracting sperm becomes an issue for them and it becomes very challenging.

We know that patients with fewer financial resources are less likely to be offered fertility preservation counseling. So our patients in the lower socioeconomic statuses, these patients are less likely to be referred. And again, that's not providing equitable care. There are many resources available for patients that can provide some financial resources. And so these patients really should be given the opportunity to have a discussion and seek resources, or we can provide options for them.

And then lastly, I'll say that in terms of disparities, cultural biases play a huge part in this. Our providers come with their own biases as to how many children they feel that a family should have, and that can be a bias. Sometimes prognosis can be a form of bias. If the patients have a poor prognosis, then perhaps the provider is uncomfortable referring them for fertility preservation therapy.

But there are some options for patients if they should succumb to their cancer diagnosis, there are some posthumous reproductive options that our young adults can participate in or agree to. And it requires a lot of legal discussion and documentation and contracts, but there are options. And we really should be providing our patients the opportunity to decline these options. And in that way, we can really address the disparities in fertility preservation for our patients.

And then lastly, I will say cost is a factor, but there are I think now 13 states with insurance mandates for fertility preservation. And these mandates are starting to occur more and more often. And so we need to continue to push our legislatures to move the needle forward in this way.

ASCO Daily News: Can you highlight some of the new technologies in fertility preservation that oncologists should be aware of?

Dr. Leslie Appiah: Absolutely. I think two of the very important aspects of this is that we are able to provide fertility preservation for adolescents in terms of egg freezing. So until recently, we limited this option for girls who were 18 and older or late adolescents, but we now can provide egg freezing for girls once they reach puberty, and especially once they are monarchal or have achieved menses. And so that is something that we really want our oncology colleagues to know.

It's also important for our colleagues to understand that we can start for egg freezing at any point in the patient's menstrual cycle. Historically, the patient needed to be on their cycle in order to stimulate, but now we have random start protocols. So if we see a patient today, we can start stimulating tomorrow or the next day. And the average number of days to stimulate the ovaries to be able to grow eggs to freeze is about 10 to 12 days. And so we really can intervene for these patients if we are informed of their diagnosis very early. And in that way, there will be no delay in their cancer therapies.

And then lastly, we are very excited to share that ovarian tissue freezing is no longer experimental. As of December 2019, the experimental ban was lifted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and ASCO. And so patients from birth through age 40 can have an ovary removed, or part of an over removed, and frozen for their future fertility. And this is considered clinical care. We're able to put this through the insurance, and therefore alleviate the financial burden on many of our families.

ASCO Daily News: That's great, Dr. Appiah. Thanks for highlighting these positive developments in fertility preservation. Managing the care of AYA patients and survivors as they age and deal with toxicities from treatment and other physical and mental health issues requires collaboration between providers. Dr. Roth, can you share some strategies to address the unique challenges of AYAs and the providers who care for them through various phases of their lives?

Dr. Michael Roth: Thank you, Geraldine, for that important question. As Dr. Appiah and Dr. Freyer clearly noted, AYAs face many unique challenges both during and after cancer treatment. And it really is essential that, as medical providers, we seek to meet and treat these challenges.

Unfortunately, the system as it's currently set up is really not well suited to care for some of these unique needs. Specifically, many of our younger AYAs who deal with cancer such as leukemias and lymphomas, they're treated within the pediatric oncology department. And often, the approach to their care is focused on the care of younger children. On the flip side, many patients in their 30s with breast cancer, colorectal cancer, these AYAs are treated within the medical oncology community and are often seen in clinics with many older adults.

So most of the care across the country is not specifically tailored to the unique needs of AYAs, and that's really where collaboration comes specifically into play. We know that there are many opportunities to address these psychosocial needs, the education and work needs, the onco-fertility needs, the genetic counseling needs of our AYAs, but it really takes a champion, or a number of champions, at each site to ensure that AYAs needs are prioritized.

Recently, there has been a large growth in the number of AYA programs. And what a number of institutions have done is they've brought medical oncology together with pediatric oncology to centralize these specific AYA resources under one house. Some of these AYA programs are treatment-based programs.

For example, some sites have an AYA heme-malignancy program, where they will provide both the cancer care, as well as the supportive care required for their AYA patients with leukemias and lymphomas. Other AYA programs are purely supportive care-based programs, where patients will be referred to them for their onco-fertility needs, for their psychosocial health needs, for their education and work needs as well.

At the end of the day, we really just need to do what's right for our patients. And we've learned over many, many years that just treating our AYAs the same as we treat our younger children, or just treating our AYAs the same as we treat our older adults, doesn't cut it. And we really need tailored, focused approaches to make sure that we both optimize cure rates, as well as to optimize health-related quality of life for these patients both during and long after treatment.

ASCO Daily News: Right. So Dr. Roth, what will it take to improve collaboration between providers?

Dr. Michael Roth: Cancer care is traditionally very siloed. And these silos do decrease the rate of progress in which we can make within cancer care. But specifically within AYA oncology, historically, pediatric oncologists did not interact much with medical oncologist. By having AYA tumor boards, by having more multidisciplinary clinics, essentially you're taking down those barriers. You're breaking down those walls. And being face to face, or now in the virtual world, being able to connect and to collaborate, it really allows the optimization of care for our AYAs.

It's not possible to know everything about every AYA oncology diagnosis. And when you're in a large academic center, you often have many subspecialists within each of the different cancer types. When you're in a smaller community setting, oftentimes you have more generalists who take care of all patients with a large number of diagnoses. And often in the community settings, there aren't many specialists who focus on AYAs with breast cancer or young adults with colorectal cancer.

And oftentimes, it really takes teamwork and a real consensus and an approach within a team setting to make sure that both the cancer-directed care is appropriate and is the most appropriate treatment approach, but also there's a need to focus on that health-related quality of life, and specifically that often gets lost for many of our patients during their treatment.

Dr. Leslie Appiah: We are also finding that when we incorporate our fertility preservation colleagues, our experts, into the multidisciplinary oncology meetings that were also able to break down those silos and help educate our colleagues about fertility options for patients as they are diagnosed. And that really does expedite the care that we provide to these patients.

We also want to look at leveraging technology to improve how we incorporate fertility preservation into oncology care and using our best practice advisories within our Epic systems, as well as using the Epic referral process to really expedite the referrals of patients. And by that I mean, there are ways to do an opt-out referral system where the referral is automatic, unless the oncologist opts out of that referral.

And in order to opt-out, the oncologists will have the discussion with the patient about their fertility risk and then recommend consultation. And the patient can then decline, and that's when the provider would opt-out of that consult. So utilizing technology that we have already can really expedite the care for these patients and break down some of those barriers.

ASCO Daily News: Absolutely. Well, there's a huge need for more research on AYAs. Dr. Freyer, how does clinical trial accrual among AYAs compare to older patients? Are there any innovative strategies that could improve trial accrual among this patient population?

Dr. David Freyer: This is a really important issue, and I'm glad you raised it, Geraldine. So clearly, to continue advancement of AYA oncology and really every realm, whether it's survival or supportive care, more epidemiology studies, studies on basic biology questions about cancer types in this age group, long-term outcomes, and so forth, we can't make any advancements in AYA or any other age without conducting the research.

Clinical trials for many years have been sort of the heart and soul of clinical oncology science, because it's actually testing new questions, new therapies, and following in an organized way the outcomes of the patients who are enrolled in clinical trials. The problem is that the proportion of AYA patients who are enrolled in clinical trials is exceedingly low.

The gold standard, I think, or benchmark for clinical trial enrollment actually tends to be children, pediatric oncology, which for decades has been very, very successful at enrolling patients on clinical trials. And they have improved survival and improved knowledge around cancer to show for that effort.

So most studies--there's a little bit of variation--but most studies indicate that about 20% to 40%, at any given time, of children enroll on a clinical trial if they're newly diagnosed with cancer. For AYAs, that number is less than 10%, usually more around 5%. And that's actually similar to older adults. The drop off occurs sometime between 15 and 20 years of age in terms of enrollment on clinical trials.

So the question is, how can AYA patients--how can the picture be shifted to look more like that of younger children? And it turns out, I think it's really a complicated scenario. There's multiple levels to this problem. Part of the challenge is having the right kinds of trials available for the diseases that occur in adolescents and young adults.

And then another layer is getting those trials that are developed by the, say, the National--the NCTN Oncology groups getting those opened up at the sites where the AYA patients are being treated. There are a lot of barriers that institutions need to overcome in order to get those trials opened up. And if they can be opened up, then they're available to the AYA patients.

But it doesn't stop there. Then the next step is that you've got to get those trials presented to the AYA patients. So the pediatric or medical oncologist that's taking care of the children--or excuse me, the AYA patients--need to be aware of these trials. They need to have access to research infrastructure that can make it feasible to offer these and enroll the patients. And then finally, of course, the AYA patient himself or herself needs to be convinced that this is the right thing for them to do and to go ahead an enroll on the clinical trial.

So there's multiple steps to this. And clearly, addressing any single step won't ensure that more AYAs are being enrolled into clinical trials. So it requires a multi-level, multipronged approach. I think, in terms of innovative strategies, again, it's all of these things at one time.

So on the national level, there's a good deal of work being done to try to increase the collaboration across the different NCTN groups--the National Cancer Institute (NCI) National Clinical Trials Network groups, the adult groups, and children's oncology group--to increase collaboration across those groups. So that there are more trials being opened that are appropriate for that entire spectrum of 15 to 39 years of age, which, as Dr. Roth pointed out earlier, cannot be addressed without collaboration between the pediatric and the medical oncology groups. So trying to pull those together.

And then on the delivery end to the patient, trying to find better ways to support our oncologists and to make the information about clinical trials more digestible, more maybe less threatening, more understandable to AYA patients, so that they can make a good, well-informed decision for themselves.

Perhaps the least exciting for most of us, but in some ways maybe the most crucial and the most overlooked, is that middle stage of getting these trials opened at the sites. That requires resources to get these passed through the IRBs at the institutions. It takes resources to have clinical research coordinators there to shepherd them through the regulatory processes and then to make those readily available to the practicing oncologists. I think at the local level, that's where some of the greatest challenges are. And I think one of the factors that sort of feeds and aggravates or exacerbates the health disparities issue for AYA patients is where these patients are being treated.

There are a number of studies that show that AYAs tend to be treated at community sites rather than traditional academic centers. And that's wonderful in terms of making health care accessible to these patients in their home communities. There's a lot to be said for that actually. But one of the features of that treatment setting that may undercut the clinical trial question at least is that some sites, many of them, don't necessarily participate in a regular way or have fewer resources to participate in the clinical trial enterprise.

So those patients, if they're treated in the convenience of their home community, they may not have access to the same sorts of clinical trials of those who are treated in academic centers. We need to figure out a way to overcome those kinds of challenges. It's not easy.

ASCO Daily News: Right. Dr. Roth, what are your thoughts on clinical trials for AYAs?

Dr. Michael Roth: So a couple of the layers that Dr. Freyer addressed in terms of barriers to enrolling more AYAs in clinical trials, I do think at the national level, we've made a lot of progress over the past decade with these collaborations within the NCTN network groups. Currently, we have a record number of truly AYA collaborative trials open and available for our sites to be able to have available for their local patient population.

And like Dr. Freyer said, a lot of these trials, they're really getting stuck at the local level because, in many ways, there's not an incentive to open the AYA trials when you have limited resources, because it's easier to enroll many more patients on the prostate cancer trial or the older adult breast cancer trial just due to patient numbers. So we really do need to overcome that large barrier of when we have trials available at the national level, they need to be opened up at all sites really across the board to make sure that our AYAs have access.

The other point on the local level is to address the challenges we have in lack of knowledge on disparities in AYA enrollment and care. And we've tried to overcome that by having local AYA site champions, having folks on the ground really spreading knowledge. These folks typically are investigators, sometimes they work in the research office. And their goal is to help prioritize the opening, activation, and enrollment on AYA specific trials. There's still a lot of work to be done. It's a complex situation, but I do believe we are chipping away at many of these issues.

ASCO Daily News: Great. I'd just like to wrap up with a final question about models of survivorship care delivery. So AYA patients who complete treatment need to be supported. They need appropriate follow up to monitor treatment-related health problems and psychosocial support. Dr. Freyer, what are the models of survivorship care delivery that can successfully address these needs?

Dr. David Freyer: I think, again, similar to the clinical trial situation that we just discussed, I think that survivorship care for this population--in other words, patients treated during the 15 to 39-year-old age group--is in a process of emerging and growing and taking many of its leads from the pediatric oncology experience.

Survivorship care in pediatric oncology is well established. It's been now decades in the development. And there's been a huge amount of research, really high quality research, done to map out the spectrum of late effects of cancer treatment, both medical and psychosocial, for patients who are treated. Those children then grow up into adulthood and they become AYA patients, but they were treated as younger children.

So that landscape is pretty well mapped out, and there are excellent models of care in place around the country. That has now become the standard of care in pediatric oncology for comprehensive holistic care of these patients long term. That situation is emerging in AYA oncology--in other words, for patients treated in the 15 to 39-year-old age group. Of course, part of what drove that in pediatrics is that survival rates improved so dramatically that these issues were staring oncologists in the face. And it was absolutely necessary to deal with it.

It's taken a little bit longer for survival to come up to those levels in AYA and older adults, but we're there in many cases. And with the high survival now that we're seeing in the AYA age group, the same question is begging itself as was in pediatric oncology, which is now we've got these patients who have completed treatment with all of the problems that you just mentioned.

I mean, many do very, very well. And it's important not to paint a more negative picture than is warranted, but I think the data are beginning to show that many long-term survivors of AYA cancer also deal with health problems that are getting superimposed on the normal problems of aging that all human beings develop over time.

Now how to deliver that, again, the experience is just emerging. I think that different centers have developed programs that sort of play to their own strengths and overcome their own challenges, just like Dr. Roth said with AYA programs and I'm sure Dr. Appiah could say about fertility preservation programs. Every place has its own experience of one. And while there are some common themes, there are some things that need to be addressed that are individual.

I think probably the basic requirements for a survivorship care model for AYA patients is having somebody, a champion, who has some expertise in this area, commitment on the part of the facility to put together at least the basic resources to begin to bring these patients together.

There are different kinds of models. The models can be doing survivorship care in the context of each disease team. Breast cancer may have their own survivorship focus, colorectal cancer, leukemias and lymphoma, and so forth. And they may be delivered within the context of the diseases or another model is, I would say, more the classic pediatric model, which is to have a survivorship clinic that can meet the needs across these different diagnoses. And it's important for each program to determine these for themselves.

I'll put one final closing pitch in for the clinical research, which is needed in this area as well. Just as clinical trials are needed to improve survival with treatment and also our understanding of these diseases and the cancer hosts that the AYA [patients] represents, there's also a need for research in the long-term as well. And the best way to do that is in the context of survivorship efforts that are organized and have resources like databases and participation in larger cohort studies, so that we can begin to amass the data in the same way that we've done for children.

Dr. Michael Roth: So, I completely agree with Dr. Freyer. I think AYA survivorship is still in its infancy. And we're really only learning now about what happens to our patients diagnosed as AYAs with cancer in 15 years, 20 years. What are some of the cardiovascular events that are happening in these patients as they age into their 50s, early 60s?

I think there's a real need for standardization of how we care for our AYAs post-treatment based on exposures, based on cancer diagnoses. And currently, with the models in place for survivorship within some of the large institutions, there's a lack of standardization across departments, and then across institutions as well. There really are no set guidelines as to how do we monitor for cardiotoxicity. What should we be doing in terms of monitoring for psychosocial health concerns? And I worry even more, as you go into the community setting, that many of these sites don't have the resources to offer expert survivorship care.

As Dr. Freyer mentioned, this is really a plug, a call to action, to focus more attention on our patients' lives, not just during treatment but well beyond treatment. We know that 5-year overall survival for AYAs is approximately 85%. So the majority of our AYAs diagnosed with cancer will live long and well past beyond their cancer diagnosis. And it really is essential that we help them live long, healthy, and happy and productive lives.

Dr. Leslie Appiah: And I will add one final word to that. So the U.S. news and World Report reporting system has now started to include fertility preservation as a marker of providing excellent care in the children's hospitals. And of course, that's going to go into the adolescent population as well. So I think that's one impetus for our colleagues and our institutions to really make this a priority.

Additionally, as Dr. Roth stated, using national databases, where we can really bring together all of the information so that we can standardize how we care for this population, is really important. And the University of Colorado is developing a national database in fertility preservation as a data coordinating center for the Oncofertility Consortium and will be including various sites across the country, so that we can start to look at this data longitudinally.

And then lastly, I would say, again, leveraging technology. I don't think that, in medicine, we utilize technology the way that we should. And I think using our electronic medical record to signal to us, as fertility specialists, when a patient has completed their treatment and they are in survivorship, this is a time for us to intervene again into this patient's care and to make sure we've really addressed all of their fertility and reproductive and gynecologic/urologic needs that they are going to experience. So those are the ways that I think we can incorporate better fertility preservation care into the survivorship care model.

ASCO Daily News: Excellent. Thank you, Dr. Appiah. And thank you, Dr. Roth and Dr. Freyer as well, for highlighting the challenges facing AYAs and approaches in care for this patient population.

Dr. David Freyer: Thank you, Geraldine.

Dr. Leslie Appiah: Thank you for having us. It's been a pleasure.

Dr. Michael Roth: Thank you so much.

ASCO Daily News: And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. If you've enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.



Disclosures: Dr. Michael Roth

Research Funding: Eisai, Pfizer

Dr. David Freyer: None disclosed. 

Dr. Leslie Appiah: None disclosed.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.