My Journey as an ASCO Volunteer

Nov 07, 2022

Volunteers from low- and middle-income countries bring essential perspective and experience to ASCO’s global mission

By Catherine K. Mwaba, MD 

I am a radiation and clinical oncologist from Zambia, with 15 years of post-graduate experience caring for patients with cancer to prolong and improve their lives. I work in a low- and middle-income country (LMIC) setting. I have come a long way, having completed my medical degree in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1997. Several decades later, I am sharing a story on my experience as an ASCO volunteer. 

How the Journey Started 

I have always been ambitious and a go-getter. I believe in the impossible. Receiving negative feedback is one of the most difficult things anyone has to deal with. It was hard when my first application for ASCO’s International Development and Education Award (IDEA) in 2009 was unsuccessful. I was, however, encouraged to apply the following year but I did not—I waited a couple of years before I applied for the IDEA again. To increase my chance of being selected for something, I applied for two scholarships slated for the same year: IDEA and the Flims Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop. This was in 2012. Imagine my elation at being offered both opportunities! 
At that time, only one other Zambian had been successful at getting the IDEA and there were very few individuals from my country that were alumni or members of ASCO.  
Working with colleagues in establishing radiotherapy services at the first radiotherapy facility of its kind in Zambia from 2007, I was always looking to advance my career and dreamed of becoming a researcher in the field, and the Flims workshop was a great opportunity for me. This, however, is a story about my journey within ASCO. 
The experience I gained attending the ASCO Annual Meeting through the IDEA program in 2012 and meeting my mentor in Houston, TX, at MD Anderson Cancer Center set in motion a series of events that I had not considered possible. 
Five years later, in 2017, I received a request to complete an online questionnaire about my experience with and perception of ASCO, which I gladly answered. This was key, as maintaining communication helped me remain connected to the ASCO staff and other IDEA alumni. 
After participating in the IDEA program, my first volunteer experience was serving on the ASCO Multidisciplinary Cancer Management Course Technical Working Group (MCMC TWG) for three years, from 2016 to 2019. Until I was invited by the ASCO International Affairs Department to participate, I didn’t know that an individual from an LMIC setting could be considered to serve. The international reach to all corners of the globe is clearly something that ASCO does well, bridging the gap across different economies.  
I was so excited to be invited to be a member of the MCMC TWG that I remember emailing my direct supervisor and explaining how I felt that this opportunity would benefit the hospital indirectly. I would use the knowledge I gained to help me establish the local Breast Multidisciplinary Team Clinic.  
I kept the connections I had made, and once in a while there was a check-in to see what the 2012 IDEA alumni were up to and how the ASCO experience affected their professional lives. 
In 2021, ASCO’s International Affairs Department invited me to volunteer on the IDEA Steering Group. As part of the role, I would need to attend meetings and review applications for future participants in the IDEA program. I love a challenge and was not hesitant to accept the offer. 
Learning how to conduct a review of applications was interesting and I personally felt that I was valued and that my voice mattered. 
Beyond my work with ASCO, I serve on the African Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Training and Development related to Nuclear Science and Technology (AFRA) Management Committee, as chair of the Partnerships Building and Resource Mobilization Committee (PBRMC), and I have met different experts in the field of radiation medicine. 
I was asked to assist in reviewing a section on treatment guidelines for breast and cervical cancer developed by a team in Kumasi, Ghana, with support from C/Can (City Cancer Challenge). I met wonderful people (first virtually, and later in person) and I soon learned that ASCO was a partner with C/Can, a foundation working to improve access to equitable cancer care. Reviewing the guidelines during the COVID pandemic period gave me the break I needed and presented me with an opportunity to do something different and share my experience in the process. 
I did not for a minute anticipate that I would be invited to participate as ASCO faculty in conducting an MCMC when COVID-19 restrictions eased. 

The Benefits of Volunteering 

Some of the benefits of volunteering with ASCO are not measurable or immediately visible. The improvement in communication skills, the ability to network and form professional relationships that benefit local institutions, and the potential to collaborate with individuals from different corners of the world are some benefits that I have noted from volunteering. 
My recent participation in conducting an ASCO MCMC in Ghana in July 2022 was the ultimate cherry on the icing. The carefully selected experts from LMIC and high-income country settings made the course interesting. The experience of learning from each other and appreciating the different challenges that professionals face in the field of oncology across the globe was personally gratifying. Beyond the professional relations, friendships were forged.  

The Future 

With the ever-growing cancer burden and statistics showing that the burden of cancer is rising in LMICs, coupled with the disparities and inequities in access to quality care, ASCO will need more and more volunteers from LMIC settings. We can offer a wealth of information as well as experience adapting treatment guidelines stratified to our setting’s resources.
Dr. Mwaba is head of the Radiation and Clinical Oncology Department, and head of Unit II (Breast, Multiple Myeloma, Malignant Melanoma, NMSC and Lymphomas) at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. She is a co-founding member and current secretary general of the Clinical and Radiation Oncology Society of Zambia (ZASCRO). Follow her on Twitter @kasongomwaba
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