Women’s Health and Cancer Conference to Celebrate 25th Anniversary

September 27, 2022 by Kate Strotmeyer

In addition to panels and presentations, the 25th anniversary conference highlights information on supportive services for cancer survivors and their loved ones. (Photo from 2018 conference: Andy Duback)

Innovative New Treatments, “Whole Person” Therapies, Survivorship Among Topics Covered at UVM Cancer Center Conference

When Patti O’Brien organized the first Women’s Health and Cancer Conference, in the fall of 1997, the University of Vermont Cancer Center event was among the only meetings in the world devoted to the information needs of patients, who were often kept in the dark about their treatment.

In 2022, the 25th anniversary of the conference, patient information about a myriad of treatment options is everywhere but, because of that pervasiveness, the need for the conference is greater than ever.

“It's a different world now,” said O’Brien, a retired doctor, former professor in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine, and cancer survivor. “There are so many more options for treatment today and, thanks to the internet, patients know a little bit about a lot of them. The goal of the conference has always been to give patients the high-quality information they need to make informed decisions about their care.”   

The free, 2022 conference will be held on September 30 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. both in-person, at the Dudley H. Davis Student Center on the UVM campus, and online via Zoom. The conference is supported by the Victoria Buffum Fund and Eleanor B. Daniels Fund at the UVM Cancer Center. Continuing medical education credits are offered free of charge.

Registration for the conference is required and can be done here.

From the beginning, the conference attracted health care providers as well as patients. Today it is geared to anyone interested in learning more about women's health and cancer — patients, cancer survivors, health care professionals, caregivers, and the general public.

“We want to cast as wide a net as possible,” said Cancer Center director Randall Holcombe, M.D., MBA. “Every year we learn more about cancer and how to treat it. The more people are aware of these advances, the greater impact the conference will have.” 

Highlights of the conference

Panel Discussion: New Technologies to Reduce the Burden of Cancer. Director Holcombe and panel members will explain how new technologies like artificial intelligence can improve the accuracy and reliability of mammography and other cancer screening techniques. The panel will also discuss how new approaches to cancer detection, using genetic testing from blood samples, have the potential to identify cancer before symptoms develop. Also on the panel agenda: how new cellular therapies such as CAR-T cells can improve survival for patients with cancer by re-engineering the immune system to attack cancer cells.

Treatment’s Over: Now What? Patient Panel. UVM Cancer Center clinical psychologist and cancer survivor Kathy McBeth, Ph.D., will discuss how to develop a survivor's wellness plan that includes ways to take care of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. The panel also includes three cancer survivors, who will relate their experiences and strategies for life after treatment.

Keynote: Moving from Treating Cancer to Treating the Whole Person. Whole person treatment is designed to address quality of life issues for cancer patients using a combination of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual supports. Keynote speaker and UVM Cancer Center oncologist Kim Dittus, M.D., Ph.D., will explain how integrative therapies improve side effects related to cancer treatment. Dittus, whose Ph.D.is in nutrition, will discuss lifestyle changes patients can incorporate that have the potential to improve overall health both during and after cancer treatment.

What Matters Most: Person-Centered Goals of Care Discussions for Cancer Patients. Palliative care specialist Steven Berns, M.D., will deliver a closing plenary session at the conference. His talk will outline the framework, methods, and goals for fostering meaningful end-of-life conversations inclusive of patients, clinicians, and caregivers. 

Conference origin — O'Brien delivering “mini-lectures” to her support group

O’Brien was motivated to create the conference in part because of her own experience. After her breast cancer diagnosis, she began attending a support group. Members gave strong emotional support to one another but had so many questions about cancer and its treatment, O’Brien began delivering what felt like mini-lectures to the group.

“That was when I realized the need for the conference,” she said.

The event was a hit from its inception, drawing 600 people its first year.

This year, in recognition of her contribution, the Courtney and Victoria Buffum Family Foundation established the Patti O’Brien, M.D. Women’s Health and Cancer Fund to support the annual conference through a $1 million endowment.

In making this grant, the Foundation board of directors wanted to honor Vicki Buffum’s intent to enable women and cancer patients to receive support in every way possible. 

“The conference is such an important event,” said board member Melissa Gauntlett. “As treatment has grown increasingly sophisticated, it’s vital to give patients the most current information and support so they can partner with their providers to create the best possible treatment plans.” 

“We’re thrilled to be able to support this key event,” said board member Tom Gauntlett. “And we’re forever grateful to Patti O’Brien for having the foresight 25 years ago to see how great the need was. That the conference is so robust today is testament to her hard work and that of many others who have contributed to its success over the years.”  

About the University of Vermont Cancer Center

The University of Vermont Cancer Center is Vermont’s only not-for-profit comprehensive clinical and research cancer center. Founded in 1974, the organization is located within the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine and enjoys a clinical partnership with the University of Vermont Medical Center. 

Drawing on the expertise of more than 165 research and clinical members, the center works to reduce the burden of cancer in Vermont, northeastern New York and across northern New England, through research, outstanding clinical care, community outreach and education.

Related: Women's Health and Cancer Conference Program and Registration