Sobering Statistics: Cancer Survival Rates Among Black Populations  

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer survival rates for Black patients are lower than those in white patients for almost every type of cancer. Cancer disparities refer to a measurable difference in health care incidence and outcomes among different groups of people, particularly Black and Hispanic populations and those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“In general, cancer treatments have gotten better and people are living longer,” said Kathleen Sweeney, DNP, RN, director of Hematology and Transplant Services for the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network. “But there is still a gap among races with regard to cancer.” 

Committed to Equitable Care

Sweeney and her colleagues are focused on closing the gap with an approach spanning several departments and disciplines. 

“It’s not enough to acknowledge the problem,” she said. “Instead, we are working to bring health care closer to home for isolated populations to ensure people feel comfortable seeking help.”

What is Behind the Health Disparities?

“Many factors contribute to cancer disparities — biology, genetics, income, lifestyle factors, access to cancer screening, access to health care facilities and more,” said Melinda Stolley, PhD, associate director, Cancer Prevention and Control, MCW Cancer Center. 

“Even some historically marginalized populations who live close to a major hospital may be reluctant to seek help because of the history of mistreatment and racism within health care,” Stolley said. 

COVID-19 added a new layer of access challenges, keeping people from seeking out screenings that can find cancers earlier and provide a better chance for a cure.

“Nine million Americans missed their cancer screenings because they were afraid to come to a hospital while COVID-19 was going on,” Sweeney said. “Now, the question is how will we get people back to screening to reduce a big spike in advanced stage cancer cases in the next three to five years?” 

There is no quick fix for cancer disparities, but the Cancer Network has several initiatives designed to help address the problem. 

“The data says you need navigators who meet people where they live and work, who look like the people they’re working with and who speak the same languages,” Sweeney said. 

Community outreach coordinators meet people in churches, community centers, libraries and other neighborhood locations to other education, screening and health events. They spend much of their time in Milwaukee’s predominantly Black, Hispanic and Hmong communities, including the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and Progressive Health. 

“Community voices are key in hearing, understanding and addressing disparities in the cancer burden,” said Debra Nevels, MS, program manager for Community Outreach and Engagement with the MCW Cancer Center. “We work hard to hear about concerns regarding health and access to quality care. We take that knowledge to heart — and then work from the inside out to build pathways to health equity.”

Cancer screening helps detect cancer earlier, when people have a better chance of responding to treatment. The Cancer Network offers breast, colorectal, cervical and other cancer screenings at multiple locations. Additionally, through a contract with the Wisconsin Well Woman Program, mammography and cervical cancer screenings will soon be available at Froedtert Hospital to women with little or no health insurance. 

Addressing Behavioral Health Services

Behavioral health services are another important consideration. The Froedtert & MCW health network helped fund a behavioral health clinic at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers because mental health struggles represent another health care barrier. The very illness that needs treatment may prevent people from seeking medical care. A person with mental illness may be unable to take care of their physical needs. They may struggle to find affordable and accessible health care. Providing behavioral health services in neighborhoods makes it more likely people will get the care they need.

Changing From Within to Help Close Cancer Disparity Gaps 

Closing the cancer disparities gap also means Froedtert & MCW staff must take a hard look in the mirror. A diverse staff represents the community and builds a sense of trust. The Froedtert & MCW health network is continually looking for ways to recruit people of color. In addition, staff members attend classes to help them identify their own unconscious biases, which can be difficult to admit and understand. 

Why is Fighting Cancer Disparities So Important? 

It may be tempting to believe cancer disparities only matter to the populations who are getting the short end of the disparity stick. If you’re not having a problem, why should you be concerned about it? 

“Cancer disparities aren’t just a problem for certain people, they are a problem for all people because disparities affect health and economics for our entire population,” Sweeney said. 

Timely cancer diagnosis not only saves lives, it also saves money. According to the World Health Organization, treating cancer patients earlier can be two to four times less expensive than treating patients whose cancer has progressed. Economically, cancer prevention and early detection make sense. 

“Nobody should have a higher risk of cancer because of where they live and the color of their skin,” Stolley said. “Realistically, change cannot come fast enough.”

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