September 28, 2001

Young Researchers Armed For Front Lines In War On Cancer

Other Students Must Be Enlisted to Join Their Ranks, Help Combat a National Killer


By Dr. Elena Rios

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A recent report shows the rates for new cancer cases and deaths continued to decline in the U.S., but the fight is far from over and more research is needed - research that will touch the lives of millions of Americans, their families and friends.

To that end, the National Hispanic Medical Association is encouraged to see young researchers such as Cynthia Mojica of Los Angeles, Claudia Vidal of Houston and Fermin Briones Jr. of San Antonio helping pave the way for a future without cancer.

Dr. Elena Rios

We believe research is so important in the fight against cancer that this year NHMA joined forces with Redes En Accion: Cancer Training, Research and Awareness. The five-year program, arranged by the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, will help promote training opportunities for Hispanic students and researchers, and develop pilot research projects on cancer issues affecting Hispanics.

The program, which also aims to develop a coalition of cancer research centers and community-based organizations, is part of a new effort by the National Cancer Institute to address cancer-related issues among certain populations.

Briones, who has had an interest in science since childhood and whose parents encouraged him to read instead of watch television, couldn't agree more.

"This field is so large, we need many people to do research on cancer," said Briones, who is enrolled in the MD/PhD program at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. For the last two years, he's been working on research, focusing on prostate cancer and studying apoptosis (program cell death).

"There are so many cancers and ways to attack it," said Briones, 28. "I don't think we have enough students now."

With help from students such as Briones, research is winning the war against cancer.

In a new report, the National Institutes of Health reported that the incidence rate for all cancers combined declined on average 1.1 percent between 1992 and 1998.

Still, cancer remains a deadly killer. Just four cancers - lung, prostate, breast and colorectum - account for about 56 percent of all new cases. They are also the leading cause of cancer deaths for every racial and ethnic group, including Hispanics.

Mojica, who is Hispanic, is working on cancer research at the School of Public Health at UCLA and on her doctoral degree. She is working with low-income women who have breast abnormalities and with relatives of colon cancer patients - two critical areas in research.

Last year, for example, there were 93,800 newly diagnosed cases of colon cancer and 47,700 deaths from it, making colon cancer one of the most common and deadly. Research on new procedures - for example, a blood-based colon cancer screening test -_ could make screenings less invasive, thereby encouraging people to get tested and increasing the likelihood of early detection _ and of effective treatment.

At UCLA, Mojica, 31, is doing intervention work to determine whether cancer-screening rates can be increased. "Oftentimes people don't want to think about the fact that they could be at a higher risk," Mojica said. "They believe that if they don't think about it, they won't get it."

For example, she said it's hard for people to change their diet and see the benefits of preventive health care because they don't have any cancer symptoms. "People don't realize it's good they don't have symptoms, because if they did, the cancer is probably already advanced."

It's hard to change people's behavior, she found. "It's probably easier to get them to take medicine."

Many miles away, in Houston, Claudia Vidal is taking on gynecological cancers. Vidal, 27, is enrolled in the MD/Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Vidal, who has a bachelor's degree in microbiology, became interested in gynecological oncology because she felt she could help women with gynecological malignancies and further public awareness on women's health care.

Not only is Vidal's research filling a need, but her very presence is an emblem of what medicine in this multicultural nation should strive for: diversity.

"I'm a Hispanic woman. Sometimes patients are more comfortable seeing and talking to people of their same ethnicity," Vidal said.

Her ovarian cancer research aims to discover new molecular markers for the disease with the hopes of opening the door to early detection and treatment. Although research is sometimes a tasking and slow process, she said, "I have an open mind and enjoy the discovery process necessary in science. I look forward to the challenges of resolving unanswered questions in this field."

These three young researchers are helping to write a new page in the history of science. Every major breakthrough begins with research, and cancer is no different.

Without research, we would not have a polio vaccine. Without research, we would not understand childhood diseases. Without research, medicine as we know it would not exist. We can't underestimate the power of change in the hands of thoughtful and concerned scientists.

But they cannot bring about change without our help. We must continue to invest in cancer researchers - people like Fermin Briones, Cynthia Mojica and Claudia Vidal, who will inspire us to continue the work begun by others.

We also must keep in mind who will join their ranks and replace cancer researchers in this critical battle for our nation's health.

Dr. Elena Rios is president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, representing Hispanic physicians around the country. NHMA's mission is to improve health care for Hispanics and the underserved in the U.S. Readers may write Dr. Rios at NHMA, 1411 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005.

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