A Family Tradition: The Personal Story Behind the Miami Breast Cancer Conference

Oncology & Biotech News, February 2012, Volume 6, Issue 2

The Miami Breast Cancer Conference has become a well-respected and well-attended gathering that specialists make a point of returning to year after year.

Lois and Daniel A. Osman, MD

For nearly three decades, medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists, as well as a number of other specialists who work with patients with breast cancer, have descended upon Miami every spring to catch up on the latest research. The conference draws more than 1000 guests each year from all over the world, and the agenda is packed from dawn until dusk with a wide variety of presentations from experts who are considered among the top in their field.

While the Miami Breast Cancer Conference— which will be taking place once again March 14- 17, 2012—is by no means the largest conference dedicated to breast cancer, it has become a well-respected and well-attended gathering that specialists make a point of returning to year after year. It may come as a shock, then, to learn that the success of the conference has not depended on a large national organization.

Instead, one family has handled the brunt of organizing the conference from its inception: the Osmans. Daniel A. Osman, MD, and his wife, Lois, have been the driving force behind the conference since the early 1980s, when it was just an abstract concept in the then-young breast surgeon’s mind. And, despite the growth and success of the conference over 29 years, Osman said his approach to the meeting has not changed.

“When you’re here, we want you to feel like you’re part of a family,” he said.

Humble Beginnings

In the late 1970s, lumpectomies were fairly new and not well understood as a form of surgery for patients with breast cancer. Osman believed that this new minimally invasive surgery was revolutionary, yet there were no existing conferences where he could share his knowledge with other surgeons who had also begun performing the procedure.

“I decided it would be a good idea to let other people know about this surgery,” Osman said.

Osman corresponded with some of the only other surgeons working with lumpectomies at the time, including Bernard Fisher, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Umberto Veronesi, MD, who later went on to found the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, Italy. With the help of his wife, Osman began the arduous task of organizing a breast cancer conference.

“Neither one of us had any experience with holding a meeting,” Lois said. “We figured it out as we went along.”

In that first year, the Osmans estimate that about 90 surgeons attended the meeting. Since it was a fairly small and manageable crowd, Daniel and Lois made it a priority to personally greet everyone who attended, to find out who they were and where they were from, and to make sure that everyone felt welcome and encouraged to participate. In the early years of the conference, they would take the speakers to dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab, a famous seafood restaurant in Miami, and established a tradition of hosting a buffet on the lawn in front of the hotel.

A Growing Success

After that first year, word of mouth spread about the meeting, particularly about its focus on new techniques in breast cancer surgery and its atmosphere of a personal gathering of friends. The next year, 200 people attended the Miami conference—and ever since, the conference has continued to attract a larger, more diverse audience.

Robert DerHagopian, MD, currently the director of the Baptist Health Breast Center in Miami, was one of the people who got involved with the Osmans at the early stages of the conference’s history. DerHagopian said he first began attending in either the second or third year. Since then, he said he serves as a sort of “sounding board” for the Osmans.

“Dan would run ideas by me and some other people he knew as a way to let us know what kinds of things he wanted discussed at his conference,” DerHagopian said. “He wanted to make sure that whatever was discussed at the conference was relevant to the people attending it.”

As the conference developed its own personality separate from other conferences, Osman developed a mantra that still guides the content: Learn something new on Saturday, be able to put it into practice by Monday.

Although the conference was initially attended almost exclusively by surgeons, after the first few years, the Osmans expanded the scope. They worked with Neil Love, MD, a medical oncologist who also worked in Miami, to begin including presentations on breast cancer research that extended beyond surgery. As a result, the conference has long focused on a multidisciplinary approach to treating breast cancer.

Initially, however, DerHagopian and others who had attended the conference were hesitant when Osman suggested expanding its scope. “Instead of information you could use on Monday, [Osman] thought that this information would be important a few years ahead,” DerHagopian said.

Osman’s instincts were correct. According to DerHagopian, the Miami Breast Cancer Conference included presentations on HER2/ neu and the genetic links to breast cancer years before they were routinely discussed in practice.

“That information is now a standard of care, not just for medical oncologists, but for everybody working with breast cancer patients, including surgeons,” DerHagopian said. “Dan has a knack of knowing what’s going to be useful to us in the future.”

Daniel A. Osman, MD

Moving Forward

The conference started simply, with Osman inviting people he knew. Osman and the speakers would later agree on the topics to be discussed. But, as the conference continued to expand, so did the number of speakers and the scope of the presentations—so that by 2009, the Osmans partnered with a professional meetings company, Physicians’ Education Resource, to help organize the meeting and to begin offering physicians Continuing Medical Education credits for attending the conference.

A look at this year’s agenda shows that the conference is not shying away from the latest and most controversial topics (see sidebar). Osman said the faculty will discuss axillary and sentinel node dissection in light of the results of the Z11 trial. Other current trends that will be discussed include the use of molecular profiling and genomics to personalize patient care, advanced screening and diagnostic tools, and the latest techniques in reconstructive surgery.

Speakers are allotted 15 minutes for each presentation. The program was intentionally designed to accommodate as many speakers as possible while keeping things moving at a brisk pace. However, Osman still takes the time to introduce each speaker, another personal touch that separates this conference from others.

Over the years, the Osmans have been able to attract a wide variety of speakers from around the globe, and the speaker list is no longer comprised of people from only the Miami area. For example, J. Michael Dixon, MBChB, MD, professor of Surgery and consultant surgeon at the University of Edinburgh and clinical director of the Edinburgh Breast Unit at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, has been involved with the meeting since 2001, and has participated as a faculty speaker almost every year since then. This year, he is serving as one of the co-chairs of the conference.

Even though there are many other conferences specific to breast cancer, Dixon said that the Miami Breast Cancer Conference covers everything found in major conferences. “It is a total update in that it covers everything that comes out of San Antonio or at ASCO that year, but it presents it to the audience in a more succinct, and in many ways more interesting, way,” he said.

As the conference moves into its 29th year, the Osmans are stepping back in terms of logistics and planning, though the family will still continue to play a key role, particularly in ensuring that the unique “family” feeling remains intact. The Osmans’ children have been involved in planning the conference for years, and in recent years, even their grandchildren have begun helping out to make sure everyone feels welcome.

Dixon will be one of the faculty members leading the conference beginning next year. “There are so many people who come back to the conference year after year because they have a commitment to it, and that commitment…is to Dan and Lois,” Dixon said. “They like the way that they are treated when they come to register. They like the way the conference is set up—the meet the professor sessions, the evening receptions, the buffet dinner on the lawn in front of the hotel—these are a really important part of the conference.”

“The Osmans are a virtually impossible act to follow,” Dixon said. “I know when Dan spoke about stepping down and he spoke to me about getting involved, I said I would like to continue to be involved as long as he is involved. I certainly feel that over the next few years while those of us who have been involved with the conference for a long time take over a greater role, we will need the help and support of the Osmans.”

Moving forward, Dixon said it is important to keep the personal touches, along with a quality program with speakers who can tackle provocative issues and figure out what’s practical now and what could be standard of care in the near future.

Although DerHagopian and Dixon pass the credit for the whole conference to the Osman family, the Osmans are quick to thank their colleagues and the thousands of people who have attended the conference since its inception.

View the 2012 Miami Breast Cancer Conference Agenda

“We’re very grateful,” Osman said. “We’re grateful to everyone who has been involved over the past 20 or 30 years in helping put this together. We really couldn’t have done it without them.”