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How a loved one inspired a career in cancer research | The Why


Chief Healthcare Executive kicks off a new feature looking at what inspired leaders in medicine. Alpa Patel of the American Cancer Society says her grandfather spurred her career choice.

Dr. Alpa Patel began her scientific career more than 25 years ago, and she’s heartened by advances in cancer research and treatment.

Image: American Cancer Society

Alpa Patel of the American Cancer Society has spent more than two decades studying cancer. Her grandfather helped inspire her career.

Patel is the senior vice president of population science at the American Cancer Society. The cancer society estimates that earlier detection of some cancers and reductions in smoking has averted more than 4 million deaths since 1991.

Still, disparities in cancer outcomes persist, and Patel is leading a program to enlist more Black women in cancer research with the hopes of closing disparities.

Patel says she has always had an interest in science. But she says when she was young, she lost her grandfather to glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

“He went from training for a senior triathlon to losing his life in the span of six months,” Patel says. “You know, it was really jolting to see that happen in my own home, because he lived with us.”

As a teenager, she began volunteering for the American Cancer Society.

“I always loved science, and was really curious about why that can happen,” Patel says. “And so that was really what got me started. And I don't think I'm unique in knowing, now, too many people who have heard those words, ‘You have cancer.’”

“For me, this is an opportunity to carry every one of those individuals along,” Patel says.

Now, she says, “How great to think about what we know today versus 25 years ago when I started.”

Cancer deaths have dropped by a third since 1991, according to data from the American Cancer Society.

“That's progress made through research and advocacy and patient support,” Patel says. “And I've gotten to be a small part of that. So it's very easy to stay motivated.”

Her research includes a study of how prolonged time spent sitting can lead to higher risks of premature death, including cancer. She’s also published a study that found walking can lower the risk of death from respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Patel relishes the opportunity to play a leading role in the American Cancer Society’s VOICES of Black Women study. The society is hoping to enroll 100,000 Black women in cancer research to close disparities in outcomes.

“Black women have, along with many marginalized communities, been underrepresented in research in the past,” Patel says. “So for us to be able to intentionally understand why these inequities exist, we really need to build a sufficiently large population of Black women.”

In most cancers, Black women have the highest death rate of any racial group in America, and they have the shortest period of survival, the cancer society says. The mortality rate of Black women with breast cancer is 41% higher than white women, even though Black women are less likely to develop breast cancer, according to data from the cancer society.

Patel stresses that researchers are doing the study in partnership with Black women, and they are anxious for their input and experiences as they try to gain a greater understanding of cancer.

Even in a small pilot study that has kicked off the VOICES project, Patel says, “We did several community focus groups where we did far more listening than we did talking. We gathered a lot of information.”

She says the name of the project, VOICES, “is very intentional.”

“We wanted to make sure that we were incorporating the voices of Black women in how we design, approach and execute this study,” Patel says.

Patel encourages other researchers and health systems to listen to members of underrepresented groups.

“Listen and build relationships and partnerships with the women and individuals that you're trying to engage,” Patel says. “Because then, the more they feel part of it, the more they actually are part of it. The more we'll see that commitment over time from these women who go on these journeys with us.”

Even with too many struggling with cancer, Patel says it’s important to recognize the progress in research and treatment.

“We celebrate it a lot,” Patel says. “And then we remind ourselves of the work that remains. But I do think that we can't say it enough. And we can't celebrate it enough, because you know, that represents millions of lives that have been saved.”

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