Dr. Ruben Mesa &
Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez
Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez and Dr. Ruben Mesa are respected oncologists in their fields, but in this video, they give a much deeper and personal look into their WHY for treating cancer.
They also detail the importance of having representation and diversity both in doctors and in patients, especially when it comes to clinical trials and research to ensure access to quality care for all patients.
Thank you, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Mesa, for sharing your stories and the work you two do!
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez, MD, MPH
I think what drew me to medicine is that I have in my family, like many other, people have experienced cancer.
My grandmother had endometrial cancer, my mother had breast cancer, and their experience in Puerto Rico — not really able to connect with doctors where doctors tell you what to do and this is what’s going to happen. They got these treatments but they didn’t understand them. I wanted to change that.
I’m the first college grad in my family and I don’t have any doctors in my family. When I applied to medical school, I feel like it was like a miracle that it happened. I went to a very good program.
I went to Columbia and I went to Penn with scholarships. I found great mentors who were non-Hispanics but they saw something that they wanted to promote.
My grandmother had endometrial cancer, my mother had breast cancer, and their experience in Puerto Rico — they got these treatments but they didn’t understand them. I wanted to change that.
I think that that’s one of the most rewarding parts of my day job — that I have patients that immediately when they see me, they can connect because we can speak the language. But not only is that a language issue, it’s really understanding the culture, the cultural nuances like understanding that their family is a big part of their health care decision group so you have to involve them and be respectful of their family.
Being able to connect with them on that level makes them feel that you took one of these barriers out. They don’t have to be overwhelmed about having that doctor connect with them.
I have patients that immediately when they see me, they can connect because we can speak the language… it’s really understanding the culture, the cultural nuances.
I think this space and this time where Latinos are coming together to support each other and recognize each other is letting other younger Latinos feel like this is a field where they can make a career, they can be happy, and they can make a difference.
If you have a dream, you should pursue it. Oncology can be a very intense field but it’s a very rewarding field. And we need you.
I think I’m only the first or second Latino NCI Cancer Center Director in the United States. It’s a neat connection with that community.
I had the chance this year to testify before Congress regarding changes in FDA regulations and legislation regarding diversity in clinical trials.
Diversity in clinical trials is both about social justice and good science. We want to know whether it is safe and effective. Diversity is powerful.
I was able to share when the first lady came to visit our cancer center that diversity in clinical trials in our care, it’s both about social justice — because we want everyone in our society to be able to benefit from the advances that we have — but secondly, it’s also good science.
As we evaluated treatment, whatever that is — that could be yoga, that could be a drug, that could be stem cell transplant — we want to know whether it is safe and effective. We wouldn’t know.
Is it effective in Asia? In Cuba? In Africa? Might we have worse side effects? Might we have no side effects? Diversity is powerful.
The problem with cancer is that it’s a thief. It steals from us.
I myself lost my father to lung cancer. He died at 62 and he passed away now 16 years ago. I think about it really in terms of all those things that he missed because of the disease that he had.
He won’t see my sister getting married this upcoming February. He didn’t see my brother get married two years ago. He won’t meet their children. He’s not seen my children grow up into adults. It is a loss that can’t be replaced.
The power not only to be able to care but to really make a difference.
The problem with cancer is that it’s a thief. It steals from us length of life and quality of life either from us, the patients we love, family members…
The power not only to be able to care but to really make a difference. What does that mean? People live longer, they live better. Deeply rewarding and deeply grateful to have that opportunity.