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Provoking Change: Why We Must Confront Cancer Disparities in Black Communities

Cancer doesn’t discriminate, but unfortunately, outcomes and access to care often do. For Black families, particularly those residing East of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., navigating cancer disparities isn’t just a matter of health — it’s a pursuit of justice.

“Why do we need to talk about cancer?” It’s a question that often comes up, one that makes many uncomfortable. But it demands an answer. Cancer is not just a medical issue; it’s a societal one. It affects us all, directly or indirectly, and its impact reverberates through individuals, families, and communities. So, why talk about cancer? The answer is simple: silence is not an option.

Black women encounter unique hurdles in their battles against cancer, such as higher mortality rates and inequalities in access to care. Data from the District of Columbia Cancer Control Plan reveals shocking statistics: female breast cancer ranks as the most frequently diagnosed cancer, with 139.5 cases per 100,000 individuals. Alarmingly, it’s also the second leading cause of mortality, claiming 27.1 lives per 100,000. Between 2014 and 2018, Ward 8 reported the highest cancer incidence rate in D.C., with 453 cases per 100,000, and Ward 7 followed closely behind with 451 cases per 100,000. Raising awareness about cancer prevention, screening, and treatment options iscrucialin addressing these disparities. By equipping Black women with knowledge and resources, we can ensure earlier detection, improved outcomes, and, ultimately, saved lives.

Another important step in eliminating these disparities is addressing the medical mistrust within Black communities. Historical events have affected how individuals and communities feel about the medical system, and such deeply ingrained mistrust can prevent individuals from seeking timely and appropriate medical care. All advocacy efforts must focus on rebuilding trust, encouraging open dialogue, and acknowledging past injustices to create a more inclusive and equitable healthcare system.

One powerful way to address medical mistrust and advocate for change is to share the stories of Black women who have a history of cancer or are battling it. Personal narratives humanize statistics and highlight the real-life effects of cancer disparities and medical mistrust. These stories not only raise awareness but also inspire action, encouraging policymakers, healthcare providers, and community leaders to prioritize the needs of underserved populations and work toward meaningful solutions.

The absence of awareness around cancer and existing cultural biases can hinder timely access to care and essential resources. Tailored initiatives aimed at educating Black communities play a pivotal role in dispelling misconceptions, easing anxieties, and encouraging proactive health practices. Alongside education, it is imperative to provide culturally sensitive care and support services to comprehensively address the holistic needs—including emotional and mental well-being, social determinants of health, and educational awareness—of Black women impacted by cancer.

While the challenges of cancer disparities among Black communities are significant, it’s essential to recognize the strides that many have made to address these issues. Initiatives like the National Black Family Cancer Awareness, led by Project Community at the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence, exemplify this progress. And while awareness is vital, efforts to combat cancer disparities extend beyond awareness campaigns. Organizations like ours (JBRF) and Black Women Thriving East of the River (BWTEotR) have been pivotal in addressing the root causes of these disparities and implementing practical solutions.

Over the last four years, JBRF has worked tirelessly to improve cancer outcomes for Black women residing in Wards 7 and 8 of Washington, D.C. Using a trailblazing community engagement approach, we have partnered with local leaders and residents to develop innovative strategies aimed at improving cancer survival rates among Black women. These strategies include comprehensive workforce development programs and cancer navigation roadmaps, which are designed to address the economic and health challenges that the community faces.

Additionally, we are actively addressing long-standing racial disparities in healthcare and employment opportunities. Our partnership with BWTEotR and initiatives, such as the scholarship fund for Black women interested in health-related careers, support our foundation’s aim to increase the number of Black women health providers and improve their career success, which would ultimately impact the care other Black women receive in the healthcare system. Moreover, our partnership with the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s Health Equity Fund has enabled us to implement data-driven advocacy efforts that will improve workforce development systems that positively influence employment opportunities for  Black women.

These steps are crucial in our mission to address cancer disparities and improve health outcomes for Black women in underserved communities. In our pursuit of health equity, every stride forward is significant. Let’s continue to stand united in our commitment to reducing cancer morbidity and mortality while increasing awareness and equitable access to quality cancer care.

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