This story is part of our Summer 2021 Newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here.
OVER THE PAST several decades, cancer technology has grown immensely. Oncology research has led to new treatments and therapies. Patient outcomes have improved for a variety of cancers. All of this growth saves lives.
“There is tremendous growth and scientific progress happening,” echoes MGH oncologist Aparna Parikh, MD, MPH. “Yet, where the preponderance of cancer cases is happening, people don’t have access to these developments.”
In 2018, 59% of new cancer cases were in low- and middle-income countries and a disproportionate 70% of cancer deaths occurred in them. However, the majority of the aforementioned growth in cancer technology is developed in resource-rich settings and rarely applied to the places where the need is greatest.
Dr. Parikh, a specialist in gastrointestinal malignancies at the MGH Cancer Center, has spent much of her career working to improve cancer care in resource-limited settings, attempting to bridge the gap between new oncology technologies and the people that most need them. On May 18, she was appointed as the inaugural Director of the MGH Global Cancer Care Program, a collaboration between the MGH Center for Global Health (CGH) and MGH Division of Hematology and Oncology.
Parikh’s drive to service came from her parents, two Indian-born physicians who raised her in the state of Indiana. Parikh describes her parents as having, “a profound sense of service.” This sense of service and the experiences Parikh had during childhood summers spent in India led her to global health.
When Parikh engaged in global health work as a medical student, she strongly considered a career in infectious diseases. However, her time spent outside the United States showed her how overlooked cancer was in global health.
“In college, as well as medical school, I took some time off to do global health work,” she says. “I saw so much cancer and disparities in diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and palliation. At the time, I didn’t feel like we were having a conversation about inequities in cancer care. I felt very compelled to start thinking about oncology specifically.”
Since making the decision to work in global health oncology, Parikh has collaborated on a series of projects: she helped develop a cancer registry to close epidemiological gaps in cancer reporting in several African countries; she developed palliative care protocols in India to address the delivery of palliative care in resource-limited settings; she is an executive committee member of MGH group BOTSOGO, which is working to improve access to quality cancer care in Botswana; and she co-created the Program for Enhanced Training in Cancer (POETIC), a fellowship program that aims to build global cancer care capacity through the training of African oncologists.
The new MGH Global Cancer Care Program seeks to create a community between MGH faculty and staff that currently work or have interest in improving global oncology. To Parikh, the development of the program could not come at a better time.
“We’re seeing an epidemiologic shift happening as the global population grows and ages,” Parikh explains. “Some parts of sub-Saharan Africa are projected to have an 80% or more increase in cancer incidence in the next 15 years.”
Cancer is already the second leading cause of death worldwide, with 10 million deaths in 2020. It is one of a number of chronic non-communicable diseases threatening to have an unbalanced negative impact in lower-middle income countries.
“As a global cancer community, we need to come [together] around this,” Parikh urges. “We used to say that we couldn’t deliver infectious disease care, but we did. Now, we need to figure out how to do this for cancer.”
In her role, Parikh hopes to stitch together a community to find these answers. She recognizes the great work being done by MGH affiliates across the cancer continuum—from prevention to treatment to palliation—and is looking forward to bringing these voices together.
“All the individual work that has gone on is wonderful,” she says. “I think if we can get everyone in the same room and thinking, that collective voice will be better and more powerful.”
Louise Ivers, MD, MPH, DTM&H, Executive Director of CGH shared this feeling. “We are delighted to bring our resources together to work with Dr. Parikh, her colleagues in the cancer center, and our global partners to advance access and outcomes for cancer care,” she says.
The MGH Center for Global Health strives to bring together individuals across the institution and accelerate global health impact through equitable partnerships. In collaboration with the Division of Hematology and Oncology, the Global Cancer Care Program aims to develop the MGH Cancer Center’s strategic priorities, emphasizing the importance and value of global oncology.
“Let’s start bringing together a community of people that care about [global] cancer care,” Parikh says. “And there’s people that already do.”