Editor's Corner—When ASCO dueled with the world's biggest pop star, Swift Biotech was ready for it

Per usual, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting occurred the first weekend of June in Chicago. Except this year, a superstar whose reputation precedes her put on a rivaling show right next-door—and glitter even dusted the normally buttoned-up halls of ASCO. 

For ASCO, it’s the second year back in person since the pandemic put everything on pause, but that doesn’t mean the excitement of getting back to normal—or the new normal—has died down.   

“The buzz of people being in person again is still there,” Phil Tennant, Astellas Pharma's senior vice president of U.S. oncology, told this Fierce Biotech reporter.

“I don't see people moving away from doing in-person events; in fact, I think that these are meetings where we need to be,” Mark Wildgust, Ph.D., Janssen’s vice president of oncology global medical affairs, told me.

But this year’s ASCO had more than just the buzz of camaraderie. There was also glitter, and lots of it, as Taylor Swift's fans hustled through and around the venue for Soldier Field next door.

“It’s like this swarm of glittery pink people,” Teresa Bitetti, Takeda’s president of global oncology, told me. “I'm really enjoying it.”

Just like ASCO, Swift is back performing in person. The singer and global phenomenon has returned to the stage after a five-year hiatus, and this time, she headlined a stadium right next to the massive oncology gathering.   

So how do the dueling events stack up?  

In one corner, we have ASCO, the long-tenured oncology occasion that’s been occurring since 1964. Now in its fifth decade, the event is one of the biggest cancer conferences in the world, touting more than 200 sessions over five days. Last year, more than 42,000 attendees participated, with 73% of those people returning for the first in-person ASCO since 2019. 

This year, a few attendees estimated in-person attendance to be around or above 40,000 people, all housed in North America’s largest convention center, dubbed the McCormick Place. The building (well, four huge buildings) includes more than 2.6 million square feet of exhibition space and looks out onto Lake Michigan.  

Just a skip and a hop down the road is Soldier Field and this year’s rival event. Built in 1924, every seat of the 63,500-person stadium was filled Friday, Saturday and Sunday for 12-time Grammy winner Swift and a three-hour set of the highlights from her 17 years of music.   

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A reporter's view of the other event going on in Chicago over the weekend (Fierce Biotech)

One may think the two events wouldn’t cross paths—certainly ASCO is a daytime event and the concert begins later at night. This is, in fact, not the case.

ASCO kicked off midday Friday and already traffic to McCormick was a mash-up of scientists, pharma executives, press and glitter-clad Swifties. The Swiftie sea was heading for merchandise stands that opened at noon, with long lines of people gathered for Eras hoodies and an array of other clothing options with Swift stamped at the centerfold.

Not to be outdone, ASCO also sells merch and even has an on-site location for pickup. However, there weren’t any traffic-stopping crowds for the ASCO-branded polos, long-sleeves, T-shirts and hats.

As Friday went on, traffic only got worse, with ASCO meet-ups delayed amid the commotion. At 4:30 p.m., Soldier Field opened its gates, with some fans who didn’t have tickets tailgating in the parking lot, settling in for a night of singing along with the crowd—from the outside.

And we can’t forget roadblocks for pre-NASCAR activities happening about a month before the inaugural NASCAR Chicago Street Race begins. Throw in another 10,000 concert-goers for the musical duo Two Friends—an event that was occurring directly across from Soldier Field—and what do you get? Hours worth of traffic dotted by ASCO badges, jewels and cowboy boots. 

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The more staid halls of ASCO—equally headline making (Fierce Biotech)

This reporter's main mission Friday was to find a dedicated oncologist who also crossed over into the Swiftie realm. I needed to know if there was a better way to do what I was trying to accomplish: successfully attend both events. While I’m sure there are many dedicated doctor and scientist Swifities out there, we unfortunately didn’t cross paths—and trust me, I asked.

I was disappointed as Friday came to a close and the only other person I knew who was attempting the feat was fellow Fierce Biotech writer Andrea Park.

“ASCO studies fallin’ down like pieces into place,” Park told me. “I remember it all too well.”

Somberly, I tried my best to exit the premises (pro tip: schedule ride shares ahead of time), an effort that took an hour to move one mile. The next day, I traded my ASCO lanyard for pink hair glitter (which later proved extremely challenging to scrub out). 

Ultimately, between balancing both, I realized the largest oncology conference and an international music tour actually have a lot in common.

Both have had big headlines: leaked abstract data and a surprise appearance by country superstar Maren Morris, to name two. You can sort out which occurred where.

The bottom line? Both events were fierce. Both have a reputation, massive following, merch and, most importantly, enthusiasm. Every single person I saw had a smile larger than life and hope in their eyes.

I can't wait to wear my new merch, too. You can sort out which event I bought from.