Doctor’s caring knows no borders

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Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, a medical oncologist by profession, has made it her personal mission to challenge the cancerous belief that the world cannot be changed. Specifically, she has been a champion for access to healthcare and breast cancer awareness for women irrespective of class, caste or country.

“I always felt there was something I need to do to help other people,” Ginsburg remarked, recalling the commitment regarding social justice her family instilled in her.

With an interest in science, starting out as a genetic counsellor and eventually re-educating to become a medical oncologist, she found her penchant for social justice was yet unfulfilled. She noticed that most of the people she saw in her clinics were “white and affluent.”

Moreover, as an oncologist she wondered, “Why are we paying so much attention to these . . . high priced drugs . . . [that] help very few people at extremely high cost and will never be available to most of the women with breast cancer?”

Leery of getting trapped on “the academic medical treadmill,” in 2002 she set out on an odyssey to South East Asia, outfitted with a backpack and little else, to assess local attitudes and levels of cancer education. She found that physicians there were primarily focused on infectious diseases, yet she knew that there were people out there suffering from cancer, but, she had to ask, “Where were their voices?”

Following W.P. Kinsella’s mantra, “If you build it, they will come,” Ginsburg cofounded a free breast cancer clinic in Bangladesh.

To her disappointment, she said, “They only came in dribs and drabs . . . and it was up to us to determine why.”

This was one of many trials she experienced; however, she said, “If you don’t have a lot of failures along the way, you’re doing something wrong.”

She became a reluctant entrepreneur, partnering herself with a local phone company and MIT-educated philanthropists to develop a mobile application to help shepherd women in need into the clinic. In four months, a group of 30 women armed with mobile apps were able to interview 20,000 women. The application showed women video testimonials of other women who had been diagnosed with cancer and survived and others who were treated by early intervention. This helped dispel the notion that cancer was a death sentence, as was commonly believed in South Asia. Some other volunteers were trained to further coach women on secondary issues that might prevent them from seeking help, such as child care, transportation and/or fears of domestic violence. Ginsburg was able to empower women to swallow the bitter pill of a cancer diagnosis and get the treatment they desperately needed.

Thanks to Ginsburg’s stalwart dedication, women in poor countries are increasingly seeking treatment and recovering from breast cancer. Her advice for people starting out on their career path? “Find something you’re passionate about and see if you can make a living at it. If not, try to find something you’re competent at, or also passionate about, and work at that to make your living while continuing your dedication to your passion.”

When Ginsburg initially set out to offer cancer care in poor countries, she said she “often faced blank stares, including my own in the mirror.” She urges people to ignore detractors, reminding us, “When speaking about . . . something you feel is an injustice, if you find people are telling you you’re wrong and you should be silenced, you’re probably on the right track.”