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Boston alum organizes partnership to bring cancer care to Rwanda

Dr. Lawrence ShulmanAs chief of staff and senior vice president for Medical Affairs at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Lawrence N. Shulman ’71 and his staff partner with other Boston-area facilities like Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital to offer cancer patients the latest and most advanced treatments. While providing life-saving treatment in Boston, Shulman recognized that even basic cancer care is not available to much of the world’s population.

For several years, Shulman has been involved in efforts to bring better expertise and resources to fight cancer in developing countries. He’s also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and in 2010, Shulman and three other high-level Harvard administrators issued a call to action to the global medical community to address cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in resource-poor countries.

“Our patients in Boston benefit from an excellent staff, clinical research, and extensive resources, and many of them survive cancer to live long and healthy lives. Is it fair, then, that cancer remains a death sentence elsewhere in the world?” Shulman says. “In Rwanda, for example, a country of 10 million people, cancer care has been completely unavailable to almost all patients. They die of cancers that could have been readily cured in Boston.”

In response to this need, Dana-Farber recently formed a Center for Global Cancer Medicine, and Shulman has been appointed its first director.

In March 2012, Shulman announced a collaboration among Dana-Farber, Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, and Partners In Health (PIH), with support from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and Michele and Howard Kessler, to bring cancer-fighting expertise and resources to Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world.

The goal of this effort is not only to help bring cancer care to individual children and adults, but to work with the Rwandan ministries in developing the policies and infrastructure needed for this work to take place and be sustainable.

“Teamwork is critical here. PIH is skilled at delivering health care in very resource-poor places but lacks specific cancer expertise. We understand cancer, but not how to care for patients in such challenging areas, where much of the infrastructure required for cancer care, such as pathology labs, is missing,” says Shulman, who serves as a senior oncology advisor to PIH. “By joining forces, we can offer cancer patients of all ages a chance at life.” Watch the Delivering Hope video.

Shulman describes effective cancer care as a long chain, with any weak link impeding one’s ability to help patients. “You need tools for detection, labs to process samples, pathologists to diagnose, pharmacies to mix drugs, and doctors, nurses, and community health workers to provide the care,” he says.

This kind of chain is just beginning at Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, which PIH opened in 2011, and was dedicated by former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton as the first national referral hospital for cancer care in Rwanda. Through a collaborative care model there, Dana-Farber supplies cancer medications and same-day expert consultations with its oncologists in Boston. Brigham and Women’s Hospital provides pathology of tumor tissues and surgical expertise. Dana-Farber doctors and nurses in Boston advise Rwandan doctors and nurses via e-mails and weekly phone meetings.

In March, at the same time that he announced the PIH collaboration, Shulman and a Dana-Farber team helped establish a pathology lab at Butaro Hospital and helped lead the first national cancer training program for the Rwandans, focusing on the basics of cancer biology and care.

“Some ask why we do this work, but I ask, why would we not?” Shulman says. “Having a chance to help such gracious, determined, and smart people is a privilege beyond words.”

A resident of Needham, Massachusetts, Shulman graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1971. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1975.

At Dana-Farber, Shulman is involved in clinical research and care for patients with breast cancer. He is director of the Department of Regional Strategy and Development and chief of the Division of General Oncology. In this capacity he oversees Dana-Farber’s network of cancer centers throughout New England.

In June 2012, the Lance Armstrong Foundation honored Shulman with its first LiveStrong Leaders in Oncology Award.

When asked about the role Syracuse University played in his career development, Shulman gave several examples of how his experiences as a student impacted him as a professional.

As a varsity swimmer, and captain of the team his senior year, Shulman came to understand the need for discipline and teamwork, along with the significance of “winning or losing.” Through piano instruction by John Contiguglia, Shulman was reminded of the beauty of art and what separates the human species from others.

Finally, in 1970 Shulman was accepted into a new University Scholars program, allowing him to spend most of his senior year in the organic chemistry laboratory of Dr. Donald Dittmer. It was there that he first appreciated both the complexities and possibilities of science and medicine.

“SU is not only where I first developed a serious love and devotion to academics, it’s where I learned about the broader aspects of life,” he says.