Alumna Tackles Disparities in Cancer Treatment

January 30, 2018 • by Annie Zhang

Leticia Nogueira talks about being the Director of Health Services for the American Cancer Society, what her research focuses on, and what she hopes to accomplish through her work.

Portrait of a woman

Photo credit: Vivian Abagiu

Leticia Nogueira, Director of Health Services at the American Cancer Society, received her PhD in Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.

Earlier this year, you became the Director of Health Services for the American Cancer Society. What do you hope to accomplish through your work?

A lot of my research and work is looking at disparities between various cancer treatments and accessibility to these treatments. One of the projects we're currently working on is analyzing the early mortality rate in cancer, or death within 30 days of receiving surgery, across different types of facilities. We've found that people treated at NCI [National Cancer Institute]-designated cancer centers have a lower chance of dying within 30 days of receiving treatment compared to those receiving treatment at a community hospital. This project has huge implications for where people decide to get their cancer care and can work as an incentive for hospitals to improve their approach to surgery and treatment.

Before that, you worked in the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). What did your research focus on there?

Every cancer diagnosed or treated in Texas is required to be reported to the Texas Cancer Registry, which is part of the DSHS. We processed about 100,000 cancer cases each year. Using the principles of epidemiology, we consolidated and analyzed that data to identify populations at risk, develop evidence-based actions, and protect and promote the health of the people of Texas. That data is also provided to researchers and non-profit organizations so they can better understand the progress of cancer.

How did you first become interested in cancer research?

I believe everyone has had a personal encounter with cancer. When I came to UT for my PhD, my focus was actually on genetics. For the first practical, we had to choose a topic that was not related to our research, and I chose the relationship between obesity and cancer, and that got me more interested in other determinants of health. I learned that a person's zip code can have a bigger impact on their health than their genetic code. So, halfway through my PhD, I switched from the molecular biology side to population science, focusing specifically on the link between obesity and cancer. Still, my early background and the work that I did at UT have shaped how I approach problems today, and to be familiar with all the different biomarkers makes a huge difference on the research I'm doing now.

What motivates you to continue your work with cancer research?

A lot can be done, from prevention to treatment to addressing health disparities. There are so many different types of cancer, and each type is pretty much a completely different disease. There's a lot of potential for our work to have an impact, and of course, it's one of the trickiest and most pervasive diseases out there. Even if you have a terrible day at work, at the end of the day, you're doing cancer research, and that motivates me to continue to do work that has a positive impact on the world.

​Update: ​In April, the College of Natural Sciences announced that Nogueira will be a 2018 inductee into the college's Hall of Honor, as the recipient of this year's Emerging Alumni award.