Torres Researches Cancer Care with Zeal, Empathy

By Francine Parker

Isabel Torres’ passion for social justice and human rights was born from personal experience.

“I’m Cuban-American, and I am the first person in my family born in the United States, so I understand firsthand what the challenges are being from a family of immigrants,” said Torres, associate professor in the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW). 

Torres also understands the emotional ordeal of providing care for a loved one battling cancer. Her father and grandparents died from the disease.

“Over the last nine months of his life, my grandfather received hospice care at home. It was a godsend, especially for my mother who was his primary caregiver,” Torres recalled.

She added, “Even with the help of full-time paid caregivers, there is no way we would have been able to take good care of my father at home if it had not been for the help we received through hospice. My grandmother also received hospice care at home over the last three months of her life.”

Torres’ experiences may not be unique, as cancer will affect one out of three Americans, she noted. What may be unique, though, is the research she conducts at UH and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where she serves as visiting associate professor. She studies health disparities in palliative cancer care among underserved communities, particularly among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America. 

“Disparities involve a fundamental component of injustice,” Torres said. “African-Americans and Latinos are frequently under-screened, under-treated and don’t have the same access and same quality of end-of-life care when it comes to cancer.”

In her research, Torres identifies factors that contribute to disparities in hopes of developing strategies that may, eventually, eliminate those inequities. With her own experiences in mind, Torres pursues her research with fierce determination and empathy. 

“Recruiting and retaining study participants for longitudinal studies is difficult since they are very ill,” Torres said, “I feel very rewarded because the research is so relevant to improving the quality of life of patients and their families.” 

Torres began her tenure at UH in 2011 shortly after the University attained Tier One research status from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was one of the reasons she accepted the job. 

“The Graduate College of Social Work gave me the chance to broaden and grow the educational and research program in health disparities and palliative care,” Torres said. 

It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, especially since the position kept Torres in her home state and Houston. She had grown to love the Bayou City during her years as a student at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth). There, she received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in public health after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies and government from UT-Austin in 1989.

During the next two decades, Torres developed a reputation as a brilliant student, outstanding leader and a committed researcher. In the early 1990s, she received the UTHealth New Student Academic Merit Scholarship. She also is the recipient of the 2009 Hispanic Women in Leadership Award and a 2009 American Public Health Association Nobuo Maeda International Research Award from its gerontological health section. 

Her recent honors include the 2012 Latin American Association of Palliative Care Poster Award and a 2011 International Palliative Care Network Poster Exhibition Award. Torres also was invited by officials at the prestigious medical journal Lancet Oncology in 2013 to co-author a landmark report on the status of cancer care in Latin America. 

Additionally, the medical journal Palliative Medicine ranked two articles that she co-authored in 2012 about her research into artificial hydration at the end of life among the top 10 articles impacting clinical practice in palliative care worldwide. 

Torres’ success should come as no surprise. Excellence was not only encouraged but also expected by her father, who was an ophthalmologist, and her mother, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry. 

Torres’ three sisters, all of whom are older, also inspired her. They, too, are accomplished professionals in their fields — political science, communication/governmental relations and broadcast journalism. 

Although Torres stays busy with her teaching and research, often traveling from one Latin American city to another, she also leads an active social life. She spends her free time with her husband, 13-year-old stepson, four cats and two dogs. She enjoys entertaining, cooking, gardening and swimming.

As far as her endeavors on campus, Torres, who was recently awarded tenure, is enthusiastic about her work at UH. 

“What I like most about UH is my students and my staff,” she said. “My students are responsible, smart and mature. I feel so blessed for having them on board.”


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