From Azerbaijan to America: IDEA Recipient Learns From Top Cancer Centers, Leaders in the Field

Jul 28, 2016

By Narmin Talibova, MD
National Oncology Center, Azerbaijan

Cancer takes away millions of lives every year, and in low- and middle-income countries, the high cancer mortality rate can often be attributed to scarce means and a shortage of trained professionals. Hoping to contribute my best in the fight against this disease, I chose to become an oncologist in my country, Azerbaijan, with a focus on tumor biology, cancer genomics, drug developments and related areas of medical oncology.

In many low- and middle-income countries, cancer remains a major public health problem with high overall incidence and higher frequency of advanced stage at diagnosis, compared to higher-income countries. Azerbaijan, as a post-Soviet country, has gone through tough times in recent history, and has been negatively impacted in the medical field, particularly in oncology. Azerbaijan has a total of 35,000 patients with cancer, who are served by seven cancer clinics across the regions of the country.

Despite having fewer resources, Azerbaijan has made some significant progress in oncology development within the country. Today, the National Center of Oncology, where I work, is a leading specialized scientific-research institution that owns a clinic base of 650 beds. In 2014, a cooperation agreement was signed between the National Center of Oncology of Azerbaijan Republic and the Varian Medical Systems, an American company which designs and manufactures the most advanced technologies for radiation cancer treatment. As a result of this cooperative agreement, the most advanced universal system for radiation therapy, TrueBeam™ ST, has been installed at the National Center of Oncology. In addition, a Cancer Registry has been established at the National Oncology Center, which in 2015, was elected as a full member of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). The Center also has a newly-established modern molecular oncology laboratory and PET-CT. A bilateral agreement signed in November 2015 with MD Anderson Cancer Center will help us further achieve significant results in the field of oncology. Azerbaijan has also seen improvements in the country’s ability to provide medication to patients with cancer. Of course, major problems remain in the provision of medication in Azerbaijan—for example, our patients are generally not able to receive new target and immunotherapy drugs, due to their costs.

Despite all of these challenges, I managed to further my knowledge in several areas of oncology, which later allowed me to become the first candidate in Azerbaijan to receive a grant from the Azerbaijan Ministry of Health to do an observership in oncology at Jena University, in Germany. This 3-month long observership program in Europe gave me an invaluable opportunity to gain experience and improve my skills in oncology. Following this great experience, I was encouraged to participate in the ESMO Examination. I am honored to be the first doctor in Azerbaijan to have successfully passed the 2015 ESMO Examination in Medical Oncology.

I am also honored to be the first candidate granted the International Development and Education Award (IDEA), supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation through The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

I first learned about the IDEA when I received an ASCO postcard informing me about the ASCO Annual Meeting. I started to learn more about the IDEA program and decided to apply. Honestly, I had no expectations of being selected, and so, it was an amazing experience for me to receive a confirmation email about my selection to this program.

The award allowed me to attend the June 2016 ASCO meeting in Chicago, followed by a clinical experience at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Before the ASCO Annual meeting, I met all of the IDEA 2016 recipients from around the world. It was exciting to meet doctors from different countries and different cultures, and it was motivating to discuss the similar problems our countries face, to share ideas, learn from one another’s experience, and find ways to solve problems. The IDEA afforded me so many fascinating experiences, including: The tour of the Northwestern University Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, the IDEA Networking Event, the IDEA Alumni Event, the ASCO President’s Reception, the Grants and Award Ceremony, and the World Oncology Leaders Reunion. I also had the chance to meet my mentor, Richard M. Goldberg, MD, during these events. He was very kind and introduced me to many oncology leaders such as Lawrence H. Einhorn, MD, FASCO; Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FASCO; Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO; Thomas G. Roberts, MD; and others.

It was my first time attending the ASCO Annual meeting, and the 5-day event offered me an invaluable opportunity to gain insight into clinical practice and research methods. I attended sessions focusing on immunotherapy, gastrointestinal tumors, and many other topics. I am certain that after attending these sessions I will be able to learn more about immunotherapy, and ultimately, easily apply the essentials of modern immunotherapy treatment at my current and future institution.

After the ASCO Annual meeting, I met with my mentor, Dr. Goldberg, and my co-mentor, Yvonne Efebera, MD, during an extended tour of Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital; both Dr. Goldberg and Dr. Efebera did their best to make this experience unforgettable. On my first day, Dr. Efebera showed me the Cancer Center and the Richard J. Solove Research Institute. Dr. Efebera and Dr. Goldberg also gave me the opportunity to participate in clinic with Dr. Raquel Reinbolt at the Stephanie Spielman Breast Clinic, Dr. Gregg Otterson and Dr. Rebecca Klisovic from the Hematology Transplant Center, Dr. Ben Swanson from the Department of Pathology, and other doctors at the center. I also had a chance to attend the Phase I/II meeting, the Bertha Bouroncle Dinner, the James Grand Rounds, and the Internal Medicine Grand Rounds. In addition, I rounded in clinic with Dr. Goldberg. This experience was very motivating and inspired an event greater interest in gastrointestinal cancer and research. Dr. Goldberg was very eager to help me improve my knowledge and shared a lot of advice for my future career.

I was very excited to have the opportunity to gain insight into oncology care at a top cancer center, where I could learn firsthand about patient-doctor relationships and work schedules. I was also eager to learn about clinical trials, and was able to do so during my time at the James Cancer Hospital.

Bringing the experience back to Azerbaijan

My participation in the IDEA program will certainly allow me to contribute to the betterment of oncology in my country. As part of my future plans, I intend to give a presentation at the National Oncology Center Scientific Committee of Azerbaijan about my experience in the IDEA program and the knowledge I gained in the U.S. My goal is to encourage many more residents and young doctors to apply for grants like this, which can broaden their medical knowledge and give them new skills in oncologic care; this set of knowledge and skills will lead to better care and curing methods for our patients in Azerbaijan. In addition, participation in programs such as IDEA helps young oncologists like me to expand professional networks all around the world. In my country, residents do not have much opportunity to do research or publish during their training. Therefore, IDEA was an important learning experience for me, as far as writing abstracts and delivering oral presentations at international congresses. Participation in IDEA also pushed me one step closer towards realizing my dream of collaborating with a leading cancer center in the hope of eventually establishing an international level research laboratory in Azerbaijan.

All in all, I want to communicate my gratefulness to ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation for allowing me to represent my country as the first recipient of the IDEA from Azerbaijan. This great opportunity will certainly impact my future career in a positive way. The CCF staff was very warm and friendly, trying to do all their best both to solve all of my problems before my visit and during my stay in the United States. Thank you to CCF for brightening our world with the power of knowledge and mutual cooperation, and for giving young experts like us the hope to assist the next generation.


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