Five Questions with Elmer Huerta, MD, MPH

Elmer Huerta

Elmer Huerta’s path from treating cancer to educating patients on how to prevent and control the disease took him from Peru to Baltimore and, finally, to Washington, DC, and the GW Cancer Center. Here, he leads the Cancer Preventorium, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year — a truly significant milestone. He also hosts a syndicated Spanish-language call-in radio program five days a week, broadcast in three major markets and streamed online. He is also the Senior Health Correspondent for CNN en Espanol. And he just finished his fourth book, which will be released in August.

When he’s not changing the world, Dr. Huerta is cheering on his favorite soccer team (no, not AFC Richmond) and cooking up delicious meals for family and friends.

What’s your story?

My personal story portrays a physician who studied very eagerly and worked as a medical oncologist treating patients who came to me when their diseases were so advanced that I couldn’t save them. All of my efforts were unsuccessful, and most of my patients died.

It’s the story of a frustrated physician who started to understand that patients came to me so late in their disease progression because they lacked education and knowledge. It’s the story of a medical oncologist who decided to quit that field and embrace a new career in cancer prevention and control, using the media to educate the communities most in need and teach them how to prevent cancer or to convince them to see their doctors regularly so their cancer is found early enough to treat successfully.

I realized I could not follow this path in Peru, my home country, and came to the United States. To be credentialed in the U.S., I had to repeat my medical residency. I did this at St. Agnes in Baltimore and then went to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) with a fellowship to study cancer prevention and got my MPH at Johns Hopkins. I started reaching out to people via the media to provide the education that so many were not receiving and to develop the concept of Cancer Preventorium.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My desire to share knowledge motivates me. Every day, I ask myself, “What will I learn today, and who can I share this with?” I work with patients who want to know about preventing cancer. They want to be healthy. They want to be well. If I can provide them with the information that will help them accomplish these goals, then I’ve done my job.

What is that one book that has impacted you the most?

The book that has influenced me the most is The Iliad by Homer. I was probably 11 when I first read it, and I’ve read it many times since. When I would get sick with tonsilitis, my mother would send me to bed. I would take two things: The Iliad and a dictionary.

The Iliad taught me that humans are so diverse. We have many different points of view, just like the generals and soldiers in The Iliad. We must learn to respect differing viewpoints that arise from various situations and realities. What we see isn’t always what it seems on the surface. There are deeper intentions and meanings in all our points of view.

What absolutely excites you most right now?

I’m working towards colorectal eradication. That’s where my efforts are focused right now. Colorectal cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented and detected early when it can be cured. Despite this, recent data has shown that 64% of Americans diagnosed with colorectal cancer have advanced disease. How is that possible in 2024, when we can prevent and detect these conditions?

We’ve found that spending just five minutes of one-on-one education about the importance of fecal testing for colorectal cancer significantly increases test kits going home with patients — from 74% to 99%! We must take the extra time to educate our patients and ensure they are our allies in this fight. The only way to make them allies is through education.

I’ve worked with so many immigrant patients who have been in this country for 15 or 20 years and have never seen a physician — not once. But they hear me on the radio and make an appointment, even though they have no symptoms and pay out of pocket. Educational programming is making an impact.

I’m thankful that the GW Cancer Center supports my work with the Cancer Preventorium, which I started at Washington Hospital Center and brought here five years ago. GW is committed to community outreach and health disparities. Both of these organizations made the Cancer Preventorium possible.

What is the most interesting thing we should know about you?

I am a soccer fanatic. My team is DC United, and I’ve been a season ticket holder with that club for 26 years. I also love to cook. I cook for my family. I cook for everybody. And I cook everything: Peruvian food, of course, and Italian. Different cuisines. If I don’t know how to prepare something, I’ll watch YouTube and learn the different techniques, and then I just do it my own way.

El Buen Morir bt Dr. Elmer Huerta

Recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States, Elmer Huerta, MD, MPH, is celebrating three milestones this year: the thirtieth anniversary of the Cancer Preventorium, 35 years as a medical educator on Spanish-language radio, and the release of his fourth book, El Buen Morir (The Good Death).

The Cancer Preventorium, founded in 1994, is a unique medical initiative focused on cancer prevention, early detection, and education. It mainly targets underserved communities and emphasizes a proactive approach to healthcare.

Dr. Huerta established the Preventorium to reduce cancer incidence and mortality through regular screenings, lifestyle education, and patient empowerment. The facility offers various services, including screenings for common cancers such as breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers and counseling on healthy living practices to mitigate cancer risks.

One of the Preventorium's key components is its emphasis on community outreach and education. Dr. Huerta and his team actively engage with local communities to raise awareness about cancer prevention and the importance of early detection. This approach has been particularly impactful in reaching Latino populations and other minority groups who may face barriers to accessing traditional healthcare services.

El Buin Morir (The Good Death) will be released on August 27 and tackles death head-on. It’s a “heartfelt yet practical guide to facing death: from its perception as a cultural event as well as a biological one, to the ‘medicalization’ of death due to hospital procedures, and the various ways to seek help after a loved one passes away. Additionally, Dr. Huerta provides practical advice to prepare for the physical aspects of dying, such as elaborating a trust or will, all while humanizing the process of confronting a terminal illness or a loved one’s untimely death.”

In December, Dr. Huerta marks 35 years as the El Consultorio Comunitario (Community Consultation) host on Radio América AM 900. The program is also broadcast in the New York and Miami markets and online. “It’s a very simple show,” he said. “People call or write in with medical questions, and I respond, often emphasizing prevention and screening.

“I play a lot of music because my listeners come from more than 20 countries with different cultural backgrounds. And what is the commonality between an Argentinian and a Salvadorian or someone from Mexico, Chile, Puerto Rico, or Colombia? It’s the music. People will tell me they don’t know if it’s a music show that discusses medical issues or a medical show with lots of music. It’s their show; it’s whatever they want it to be.”

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