Cancer just surpassed heart disease as the No. 1 killer of Latinos.
That begs a vital question: Who might have insider information about Latinos that would uncover new ways to treat cancer or pave way for novel studies of cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic issues to prevent Latinos from suffering worse cancer outcomes?
Answer: A cancer researcher who also is a Latino.
Trouble is there aren’t many Latino cancer researchers or doctors.
Historically, Latino students are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, together known as STEM fields.
In fact, Hispanics (7 percent) lagged behind whites (73 percent) and blacks (9 percent) in the percentage of U.S. master’s degrees conferred, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Hispanics (6 percent) lagged even further behind whites (74 percent), Asian/Pacific Islanders (12 percent) and blacks (6 percent) in the percentage of doctoral degrees conferred.
The Latino population’s growth and diversity—whether of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other descent—warrants similar diversity among the doctors and cancer control researchers who will be tasked with solving the rising cancer crisis among Latinos.
A handful of programs are trying to bridge this need for Latino “insider” doctors and researchers.
The Éxito! Latino Cancer Research Leadership Training program at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, for example, annually selects 20 master’s-level students and master’s-trained health professionals for a five-day Summer Institute in San Antonio with tools, tips, role models and motivation to encourage participants to pursue a doctoral degree and a career studying how cancer affects Latinos differently.
Of the 37 Éxito! program participants in 2011 and 2012, about half already have applied to doctoral degree programs. Eight have been accepted.
Steven Lopez, a community health policy planner in San Mateo, Calif., attended the 2012 Éxito! Summer Institute to explore the benefits of a doctoral degree and learn more about what research fields might interest him.
“Éxito! played a very important role in guiding my next steps by: exposing me to other Latinos who have overcome barriers and life challenges; showing me various research interest and perspectives worth pursuing in a doctoral program; and providing me a network of students and professionals willing to be serve as mentors,” Lopez said after the summer institute.
Another program, the Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research in California, aims to encourage minority students—through a summer institute, internships and doctoral incentive awards—to pursue doctoral programs that focus on cancer research.
Since 1998, the California program helped 79 minorities into doctoral programs. Seventeen have graduated with their PhD, nine are in the post-doctoral stage and four are university faculty members.
These successes are a great first step.
But with the Latino population projected to continue its sharp rise in the next few decades, it is critical that more Latinos become doctors and cancer researchers.
Then perhaps we can stop cancer—from the inside.
Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH, directs the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, which researches Latino health issues and founded the SaludToday Latino health blog, Twitter and Facebook. Dr. Ramirez, an internationally recognized cancer health disparities researcher, has spent 30 years directing research on human and organizational communication to reduce chronic disease and cancer health disparities affecting Latinos, including cancer risk factors, clinical trial recruitment, tobacco prevention, obesity prevention, healthy lifestyles, and more. She also trains/mentors Latinos in behavioral sciences and is on the board of directors for LIVESTRONG, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and others.