Dr. Electra Paskett is on a mission to empower those with preventable cancers

Virginia Brown
For Columbus CEO
Dr. Electra Paskett, director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, OSU College of Medicine (Photo courtesy OSU College of Medicine)

For Dr. Electra Paskett, Columbus CEO's 2022 Healthcare Achievement Awards Pathway to Population Health winner, fighting cancer is personal. When she was in fourth grade, her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer. While pursuing her doctoral degree, her father died of colon cancer. And she herself has survived breast cancer—three times.

While her colleagues in cancer research pursue the important work of stopping cancer at the genetic level, Paskett’s work is rooted in the community.

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As director of the Center for Cancer Health Equity at the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State University, Paskett leads a team of up to 60 people on a mission to ensure that nobody, especially women and underserved populations, dies from preventable cancers because of limited information or access to medical care.

“I want to help people so they don’t have to experience what I did,” she says. “Or maybe experience what I did, so that they’re still alive after cancer.”

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Paskett has always been interested in why things happen. While at the University of Washington, she wrote a dissertation examining why women with abnormal Pap smears don’t seek follow-up treatments.

But after awhile, knowing why wasn’t enough. “For me, it wasn’t enough just to see what causes something,” she says. “It was really important that I do something about it.”

After earning her Ph.D., she joined the faculty at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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“Our focus was on women who lived in the low-income housing communities,” Paskett says. “That was in the early ’90s, when there were only a handful of people that really focused on doing intervention work out in the community.”

While at Wake Forest, Paskett and her team uncovered the barriers many women faced—financial stress, lack of transportation or even misinformation—in receiving basic cancer screenings, like mammograms and Pap smears. “When my heat is getting turned off, I can’t think about going to the doctor,” she explains.

They addressed the issue by creating a brochure to show the women which bus routes to take and how to schedule the screenings. “Transportation has not gotten any better for all of our underserved populations,” she says. “And navigating the whole maze of the medical care system isn’t any better either.”

“Any medical professional in the cancer field knows the disparities,” said Dr. Raphael Pollock, director of OSU’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, in his award nomination materials. “Black women are less likely than white women to survive a bout with breast cancer, Appalachian women have disproportionately high rates of cervical cancer, and colorectal cancers also are more common in rural communities.”

Paskett, he adds, has turned cancer data into practical programs, including “Turning the Page on Breast Cancer,” which she created to address the lower breast cancer survival rate among Black women.

She also developed the concept of a health care navigator, a trusted advisor who can shepherd a patient through appointments, payment arrangements, transportation and accessing childcare.

“They can really help people navigate the complex health care system and can address any barrier to care,” she says.

Since joining OSU in 2002, Paskett’s earliest work centered on increasing the participation of minority patients in clinical trials, education about cancer and clinical trials, increasing uptake of screening and helping community members obtain needed medical care.

“We have programs with all of our different underserved and minority populations,” she says.

Locally, her team focuses on Black, Hispanic, refugee and immigrant populations and the growing Asian population, which speaks 30 different dialects.

“I have staff that come from all those communities, including rural Appalachia, and that is how we work with them—we have staff that can speak with them that are from the community, that bring forward the issues and also the solutions.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Paskett’s team faced new challenges. “We pivoted, and workers were able to help their communities understand COVID—where to go to get tested, what isolation is and we handed out masks and bags,” she says. “So we don’t only focus on cancer; we use those policies to address the individual and specific needs of each of our populations.”

In 2020, OSU received a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund research projects involving COVID-19 testing for populations disproportionately affected by the virus.

Paskett will lead the work, aimed at understanding patterns among marginalized populations to reduce disparities in testing and treatment.

“Sometimes in our profession, the things that we do in population health—going out in the communities—don’t seem to be measured at the same level as a scientist who discovers a new gene, or a clinician who discovers a new treatment,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to have a local organization recognize the important things that we do as changing people’s lives.”

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.

Dr. Electra Paskett

Role: Director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, OSU College of Medicine; professor, Division of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health; associate director for Population Sciences, program leader of the Cancer Control Program in the Comprehensive Cancer Center; director of the Center for Cancer Health Equity at the James Cancer Hospital

Age: 65

Education: B.S., Biology, University of Utah (1977); M.S.P.H., Epidemiology, University of Utah; Ph.D., Epidemiology and Health Services, University of Washington (1989)

Community involvement: Photography, writing children’s books, reading. She is a grandmother and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where she teaches Sunday School