Working on his family’s farm as a boy in Puerto Rico, Joxel Garcia learned the importance of planning ahead to prevent hardships.
“We had to be ready for a drought or a flood, because both made our cows’ milk production decrease,” he says. Either could spell disaster for the family, so Garcia learned to prepare and guard against the worst.
Those lessons learned years ago still apply today in Garcia’s career as a medical leader focused on disease prevention. He joined MD Anderson in August to further the institution’s cancer prevention efforts.
“While efforts to develop new cancer treatments and therapies are important, it’s preferable to prevent the disease in the first place,” says Garcia, a medical doctor and executive director of MD Anderson’s cancer prevention and control platform, which promotes community programs to prevent cancer, particularly among the poor and underserved.
Ernest Hawk, M.D., vice president and head of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, and Mark Moreno, vice president for Governmental Relations, led the platform’s early efforts, which have achieved a number of successes.
MD Anderson’s tobacco-free hiring policy is a direct result of the platform’s EndTobacco program.
Platform experts have advised Texas legislators on various public health measures, including laws to restrict minors’ access to indoor tanning devices and electronic cigarettes.
MD Anderson is lending its expertise to the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) program, school-based lessons that help students and their parents adopt healthy lifestyle choices through nutrition and exercise. With MD Anderson’s participation, the program now includes sun safety lessons to prevent skin cancer. CATCH has been introduced in 10,000 schools, preschools and after-school programs throughout the nation.
Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) uses a Skype-like video conferencing program to connect MD Anderson experts with health care providers in underserved areas, teaching them how to screen for and treat cervical cancer.
Garcia, who formerly served as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Representative to the World Health Organization and a four-star Admiral for the U.S. Public Health Service, says the platform prioritizes those Moon Shots Program targets that’ll be most influenced by prevention and cancer control, including lung, melanoma and human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers.
“We’ll increase genetic counseling and testing for patients with increased cancer risks, such as those with BRCA1 and 2 mutations; we’ll increase screenings and identify biomarkers for the early detection of lung cancer; and we’ll work with health departments and legislators around the nation to advocate for the HPV vaccine and for restricting tanning bed and electronic cigarette use by minors,” Garcia says.
He intends to use big data to develop more personalized risk assessments and targeted interventions.
The platform is not meant to remain local, but to be shared with leadership at local, state, federal and international entities, he explains.
“Houston is our base, our home, and we want it to be as healthy as possible, but we have a global responsibility as well.”