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An international partnership: Improved cancer care of underserved patients in Guatemala

Written by Mahija Ginjupalli, undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, BSA Neuroscience; the Amelia Brown Johnson Memorial Scholar and participant in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track provides interns with a variety of opportunities for experiential and educational enrichment beyond the research project that students immerse themselves in for the summer. Namely, seminars delivered by medical professionals and researchers active in their respective fields introduce interns to a diverse array of public and global health topics. On July 5, I attended a panel presented by an inspiring group of clinicians and researchers engaged in an initiative to provide improved cancer care to underserved patients attending Liga Nacional Contra el Cancer/Instituto Nacional de Cancerología (LIGA/INCAN), the only major comprehensive cancer hospital in Guatemala. Those presenting at the panel included Dr. Hiram Gay, professor of Radiation Oncology at WUSTL; Dr. Lauren Henke, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at WUSTL; Dr. Edgar Ruiz, head of the radiation department at LIGA/INCAN, and Medical Physicists, Milton Ixquiac and Franky Reyes at LIGA/INCAN. Dr. Angel Velarde, department director of research at LIGA/INCAN, is also a part of this dedicated group.

Screening temperatures of patients and staff at the entrance of INCAN hospital. In the background is the donated ambulance from Washington University in the background

Dr. Ruiz began the presentation by orienting interns within the larger Guatemalan healthcare landscape. Cancer is a leading cause of death among the eighteen million individuals living in Guatemala; however, there are only four radiotherapy centers in the country, all of which are centralized in Guatemala City. Three centers provide solely private care and are virtually inaccessible by the larger proportion of Guatemalan residents facing socioeconomic barriers. In 2015, LIGA/INCAN, the only public cancer center representing the entirety of the cancer-afflicted population in Guatemala, the Department of Radiation Oncology supported the visit and evaluation by Dr. Hiram Gay and physicist Jose Garcia Ramirez, MS, assistant professor of radiation oncology.  With this genesis, a long-term international partnership was initiated among the aforementioned team of dedicated professionals to provide state-of-the-art radiotherapy equipment to LIGA/INCAN in order to ultimately improve cancer care and reduce disparities in cancer treatment for underserved communities in Guatemala.  Read more.

As a mentee of Drs. Henke and Velarde, I regularly take part in weekly meetings held by this initiative’s team where it has been eye-opening to listen in on the smaller-scale details involved in undertaking a major global health initiative. Pairing my participation within these sessions with attending this panel has allowed me to receive a birds-eye view of the positive impact of this project on LIGA/INCAN and cancer care in Guatemala. Significantly, this experience has demonstrated the importance of persistence and dedicated teamwork in endeavors to advance global health equity and access to care throughout the world.