Elevating Equity for Latinas in Cancer Research: A Conversation With Dr. Gladys Rodriguez

Dr. Sandra M. Swain and Dr. Rodriguez celebrate Women Who Conquer Cancer’s 10th anniversary at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting.

Dr. Sandra M. Swain and Dr. Rodriguez celebrate Women Who Conquer Cancer’s 10th anniversary at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting.

For Latina women in oncology and cancer research, the disparities are glaring: As of 2018, only 4.7% of oncologists were Hispanic and/or Latinx. Of those, only 33.6% are women.*

“We are underrepresented,” Gladys Rodriguez, MD, of the START Center for Cancer Care, said in a talk at the 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting. “Part of that is related to the lack of role models, lack of access to education, and seeing oneself as a possible physician.”**

As an active supporter of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, Dr. Rodriguez regularly volunteers her time, including through its Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) initiative. Dedicated to promoting equity for Hispanic and Latina women in oncology, she also co-leads an annual fundraising event to support the WWCC Young Investigator Award (YIA) for an Outstanding Latina Researcher, a grant she helped launch with Narjust Florez, MD. After receiving her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, Dr. Rodriguez completed her internship and residency at the Veterans Administration San Juan Medical Center in Puerto Rico, followed by a fellowship at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. 

In the following interview, Dr. Rodriguez shares more about what fuels her dedication to supporting Conquer Cancer programs and promoting both ethnic and gender parity in cancer research. 

What motivated you to dedicate your career to cancer care, research, and advocacy? 

GR: When I was in medical school, my aunt, who I was living with in Puerto Rico, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. There were very few cancer care resources for acute leukemia in Puerto Rico, so my aunt had to travel to New York to get a bone marrow transplant.  

Because of her illness, I became more interested in cancer. I started reading and learning more and more about cancer. Much later, during my residency, I had the opportunity to work with my mentor, Dr. Francisco Robert. He’s now retired, but he was an oncologist, and I could see his passion and care for patients. At the time (1985–1986), very few patients could be cured. Still, the patients were very grateful for the care they were receiving. I saw the incredible communication and trust between patients and doctors, and I felt that trust and communication were important and central in my own clinical oncology career. I thought maybe I could help find new cures and help develop new treatments. This took me to the research part of my career, where I work in drug development and phase I studies of new drugs. 

Why is donor funding important to moving forward the type of cancer research that you do? 

GR: Research is the only way that we are going to improve survival for patients with cancer. Each research discovery is a step toward new treatments. Improvements in survival and quality of life are based on research that has been done before. To have physician-scientists dedicate their time to research, they must have funding. We can sometimes receive funding from the government, but it’s not enough. I believe the only way that we can really improve cancer care is through research and to fund those people who want to do research. You need equipment, you need supplies, you need [participants], you need outreach. I have been donating to Conquer Cancer since it was founded. I’m an advocate for Conquer Cancer-funded research because it really is the foundation of all we do for patients. 

What is the impact of supporting the YIA for an Outstanding Latina Researcher through Conquer Cancer’s WWCC initiative? 

GR: YIA recipients are most often just coming out of their fellowship and want to pursue a research project. Sometimes it’s just an idea, and most of the time they’re very passionate about it, but they need some way to make that idea a reality. Most fellows in the U.S. and worldwide don’t have much funding available.  

During the pandemic, I felt there was something I needed to do beyond just helping my patients in my local community. And that’s how the idea of funding a YIA for Latina researchers through the WWCC initiative came to mind. I saw a community of Latina cancer researchers on X (formerly Twitter) who are looking for ways to do what they love, to express their passion for clinical research for patients with cancer. I am one of few Latinas that has served on the ASCO Board of Directors, and I did not have much funded support for research earlier in my career. I feel a responsibility to give to others in my communities, and that is why I help to raise support for a WWCC YIA specifically for Latinas in oncology and cancer research. 

What is the patient impact of supporting researchers who are multilingual? 

GR: When a patient has been diagnosed with cancer, their whole life changes. It is important that patients can effectively communicate with their providers through language, as well as for providers to understand their patients’ circumstances. The more a care provider understands a patient’s background, where they come from, what difficulties they have, the better the care that patient will have. Being a Latina, communicating with patients in Spanish, especially for those who are not that fluent in English, is important. Same for other languages. For many patients in the U.S. from minority backgrounds, it matters to see themselves in the providers taking care of them. 

Breakthroughs in research rarely happen overnight. Why is it important for donors to support research long-term? 

GR: About 20 years ago, I was at an ASCO Annual Meeting Plenary Session where they were talking about lung cancer. The presentation beforehand was about breast cancer. The latter speaker focused on a then-emerging drug that revolutionized care for patients with breast cancer. The former speaker pointed out that it’s sad how some areas of cancer research were showing improved survival in years, whereas fields like lung cancer were only showing improvement by a few months. Fast forward 20 years later, we have immunotherapy. Now, patients with lung cancer are seeing survival not in months, but in years. If you think about Nobel Prizes, you know some of the recipients this year are for initial research done 10 or 20 years ago. We never know which research is going to help us reach future breakthroughs, and it’s important to be able to fund as many physician-scientists as possible. 

How are you conquering cancer? 

GR: I’m passionate about giving the best care possible to my patients. I’m partnering with my patients: They are really the ones who decide what they want to do. I help them to understand their treatment and make the best decisions for themselves. I also support and raise funds for Conquer Cancer, especially the WWCC initiative. I tell everybody I know about Conquer Cancer. And I hope that more people will join me in conquering cancer, because every patient is important, every cure is important, and every patient deserves the best.



*JCO Oncology Practice

**ASCO Annual Meeting; June 2021