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Stalking Cancer

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Olufunmilayo Olopade
Medical Oncology, University of Chicago Hospitals

Olufunmilayo Olopade vividly recalls her first sight of Chicago. A doctor from Nigeria, she had already visited California and formed an impression of the United States as a place always sunny and serene.

Several months later, on January 14, 1983, she watched from the window of a jet as flurries flitted about O’Hare International Airport. “It was a rude awakening,” says Olopade. “I had never seen snow before.” Her disillusionment grew as she began an internship at Cook County Hospital. The feelings of frustration that had prompted her to leave Nigeria—“I couldn’t really help anyone,” she says—only took on a larger dimension as she regularly encountered people ravaged by poverty and illness. “Cook County Hospital was a culture shock,” Olopade recalls. “The poor people—my patients—were no better off than my patients in Africa.”

In 1987, Olopade—called “Funmi” by friends (her first name means “God gives me joy”)—moved on to the University of Chicago Hospitals. Though she had initially considered becoming a cardiologist, her encounters at Cook County had prompted a change in direction. “The faces of cancer were more compelling,” she says. “I wanted to do research that would one day make a difference in people’s lives.” Her early work focused on leukemia, but she soon moved on to examining the causes of breast cancer, particularly as it affected young African American women.

Though white women have a higher incidence of breast cancer, women of African ancestry tend to experience the disease at an earlier age. And when it strikes, it can be much more aggressive. In 1992, to better understand the root causes of these differences, Olopade established the Cancer Risk Clinic at the U. of C. While she and her colleagues examined such factors as environmental and societal influences, much of their work focused on genetic testing. “Once we understand the genetic basis,” she reasoned, “we can begin to find a cure.”

Olopade’s efforts have paid off. “We now have new ways to treat cancers based on the genetic profile of the individual,” she says. “If we catch the cancer early, we know we can cure it.” As she hunted for clues and cures, Olopade also waged a campaign of prevention and public awareness. “People need to be more savvy about their breast health,” she says. “We want to empower young girls, get them engaged right from high school,” educating them about the necessities of monitoring their own well-being in conjunction with regular visits to the doctor. Olopade also advocates reexamining notions about when mammograms and other tests should be administered. “Each patient is unique,” she insists. “Public policy toward [breast] screening should be individualized.”

Though she has yet to fully adapt to Midwestern winters, Olopade, 48, considers herself a Chicagoan now, able to revel in a White Sox championship and the revival of her Kenwood neighborhood. “This is now our home,” she says, referring to her husband and their three children. Still, Olopade has not forgotten her homeland. She and her husband, Olusola Olopade (a specialist in asthma and sleep disorders at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago), regularly return to Africa to educate other doctors. “We live in a global community,” she says. “We need to help everybody.”

This past September Olopade’s achievements were acknowledged on a grand scale when she received a $500,000 fellowship—one of the so-called genius grants—from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her studies in breast cancer. Rather than exulting, Olopade was humbled. “I was just doing what I thought I should do,” she says.

 

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