Maia Olsen


GO’s mission is very personal to me. While studying global health in college, I was diagnosed with
cancer. Dealing with cancer as a young adult was an incredibly challenging experience to go through, but
I was diagnosed with a treatable form of lymphoma and had access to high-quality care and a strong
support system behind me. Many do not. While volunteering in Cameroon after I graduated, I saw
firsthand the severe and devastating differences between my experience and parts of the world where
cancer treatment is not widely available. I came back to the US for grad school later that year, seeking a
way to work in a space within global health where I could help address those inequities. I found that
opportunity through GO and later my work at Partners In Health.

In the early days of GO, I started volunteering with an initiative that hosted tumor boards between
Boston-based oncologists and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. As we started
talking with the local staff in Blantyre, one challenge they identified was a lack of culturally appropriate
educational materials for patients diagnosed with cancer in a setting with low medical literacy. When we
were not able to find existing materials that could be easily adapted for a Malawian context, we decided
to design our own. Through a close partnership with The MEME design firm in Cambridge, we worked
collaboratively with oncology experts in Boston and clinicians in Malawi, Rwanda, and Haiti to design,
pilot, translate, implement, and evaluate low-literacy education materials for cancer patients and their
families in sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti. Since the initial prototype, materials have been developed for
content around prevention and radiation.

I have met an amazing group of people through my work at GO, who are endlessly dedicated to a common mission and continue to inspire and positively impact my life even as we have spread out well beyond Boston and our initial volunteer roles with GO. Between organizing a GO symposium with Harvard medical students, designing patient education materials with an interdisciplinary team of clinicians and graphic designers, or catching up socially with friends and colleagues I’ve met along the way, the personal and professional relationships I’ve made with other GO volunteers keep me coming back to this work.

There are moments where I find myself recounting what I’ve done with GO to others and it never seems quite real. As a grad student, I helped lead a project where we developed first-of-its-kind education materials for chemotherapy treatment that have now been translated to over a dozen languages and are teaching patients in Haiti, Uganda, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. This work was the inspiration of GO's current cancer education initiative which now also includes patient education materials for radiotherapy treatment as well as a comic book about cervical cancer prevention.

Looking back, the work was challenging but the goal was always simple. Our colleagues in Malawi needed something to help explain the treatment process with patients and families in a hectic clinical environment, who they worried were going home to die since they didn’t understand why chemo made them feel more sick. We couldn’t find anything that existed that was culturally appropriate or designed for low-literate audiences, so we decided to make our own.

As GO volunteer, I learned quickly that a project can emerge through determination, interdisciplinary collaboration, and an unwillingness to accept the status quo – and through persistence, can have an impact beyond what you ever imagined.

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