A UNC cancer researcher will share his groundbreaking African cancer research while urging more than a thousand UNC graduates to live fearlessly and seek “big, bold solutions” Sunday in the Dean E. Smith Center.
Chancellor Carol Folt will preside at the December Commencement ceremony, which begins at 2 p.m. Sunday.
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The ceremony will honor 491 undergraduates, 567 master’s students, 99 doctoral students and nine professional students, some of whom were awarded degrees in August. It will be aired live online at unc.live/2kxyE4u or at facebook.com/uncchapelhill.
Keynote speaker, Satish Gopal, is the cancer program director for UNC Project-Malawi, a research and care collaboration between UNC and the Malawi Ministry of Health. Gopal is the only board-certified medical oncologist practicing in Malawi, a southern African country of about 18 million people.
Gopal, a 1997 UNC graduate, lived in Tanzania from 2007 to 2009, during which time he became interested in cancer in Africa. In 2012, he joined UNC’s faculty and is an associate professor of medicine in the divisions of hematology-oncology and infectious diseases.
Although Gopal returns to Chapel Hill regularly to treat patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, he and his family moved to Lilongwe, Malawi, in 2012. There, he is helping to build the care infrastructure that will help Malawi address its rising cancer burden and be a model for effective cancer care in impoverished areas around the world.
Gopal has said the sub-Saharan Africa cancer burden represents the next great global health crisis.
Most people in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa, live in rural areas and the life expectancy is roughly 55 years. Despite the spread of antiretroviral therapy, HIV continues to be a major issue. Roughly 1.1 million people were living with the disease in 2016 and 36,000 more were diagnosed that year, while 24,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to UNAIDS.
UNC reports that 65 percent of cancers in Malawi between 2007 and 2010 were identified as one of three classical AIDS-related cancers: Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The university has been conducting HIV and STD research in Malawi since 1990 when it began a collaboration with the Malawi Ministry of Health.
Cancers in Malawi are different from those treated in the United States, Gopal said, but he expects the work could improve diagnosis and treatment for all patients in the future.
“Curing cancer in Malawi also sometimes feels impossible, given how complex and aggressive cancer is, in a place where running water and electricity can seem like luxuries, and where Chapel Hill solutions are not easily transposed to Lilongwe,” Gopal said. “But trying to cure cancer in Malawi is thrilling precisely because it can seem impossible, requiring us to summon resources, ingenuity, and inspiration in quantities that simply can’t be amassed when problems are smaller and solutions easier.”
Among his other roles, Gopal cares for cancer patients at the Kamuzu Central Hospital Cancer Clinic, leads research teams and mentors American and Malawian trainees. He is the principal investigator with the Malawi Cancer Consortium, a collaborative effort funded with a $3.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute. UNC was one of only eight institutions in the country to receive the grant award.