By Steve Blanchard - February 07, 2023
Each year, Americans are encouraged to take a moment in February to recognize the many contributions of the African American and Black communities. While Black History Month is recognized and celebrated at Moffitt Cancer Center, diversity is a yearlong commitment. The institution encourages its team members, visitors and patients to celebrate diversity and inclusion throughout the year.
“Our cancer center takes pride in its commitment to making health equity a priority,” said Cathy Grant, vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. “We are also committed to improving the overall health of our community by steadfastly working to reduce and eliminate cancer disparities experienced by the Black community and other underrepresented communities through research and the delivery of personalized care.”
According to Dr. Jhanelle Gray, chair of Moffitt’s Thoracic Oncology Program, access to advanced cancer care and treatments remains a challenge for thousands of patients across the country. Health institutions like Moffitt must take steps to change that, she said.
“Whether these barriers result from racial, ethnic or other sociodemographic group disparities or lack of access to screening or novel drugs, there is a critical need for effective strategies to achieve and sustain health equity and eliminate disparities for patients with cancer,” Gray said.
She added that incorporating diversity into clinical trials is important to prioritize.
"If we don’t accrue diverse populations to trials, the results are in turn less diverse."- Dr. Jhanelle Gray, Chair, Thoracic Oncology Department
“If we don’t accrue diverse populations to trials, the results are in turn less diverse,” Gray said. “Yet we take results and apply them across multiple diverse groups. This is a knowledge gap we need to overcome.”
There are several cancers that impact the Black community differently than others, according to researchers. For example, Black women with breast cancer have a higher death rate than white women and are more likely to be diagnosed with the more aggressive triple-negative pathology. Black men with prostate cancer are more likely to have advanced or metastatic disease at their diagnosis compared to their white counterparts. They are also at a higher risk of dying from the disease.
Why do these disparities exist? It’s difficult to say, exactly, but trust of medical professionals and hospitals could be a root of the problem.
“When looking at specific communities and causes of disparities, we look at things like lack of understanding, cultural issues and access around health care,” said Dr. B. Lee Green, a senior member in Moffitt’s Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior. “Trust has been a major issue within the Black community when it comes to health. There are people in our community who don’t trust doctors, the health care system or the government either because they had a bad experience or a family member had a bad experience. It’s difficult to pinpoint just one or two things that cause disparities and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But we must innovate, and we have to identify those disparities in order to address equity.”
There could also be a cultural component to these disparities, according to Dr. Brandon Blue, a hematologist at Moffitt.
"In some communities like the Black community, it’s sometimes frowned upon to actually say the word cancer."- Dr. Brandon Blue, hematologist
“In some communities like the Black community, it’s sometimes frowned upon to actually say the word cancer,” Blue said. “So these cancers aren’t discussed and that often leads to someone not getting the treatment necessary or from even sharing the hereditary impact of a certain disease type.”
That’s why education and awareness are so important and taking an opportunity to do that during Black History Month is just as important as celebrating the achievements and advances made by Black people throughout history.
Supported by funding through the George Edgecomb Society, researchers are studying cancer health disparities. That research is ongoing throughout the year and is directly tied to Moffitt’s mission to prevent and cure cancer, according to Green.
“Ongoing research in this area reflects the priority that Moffitt has set on addressing the issue of cancer health disparities,” Green said. “Moffitt has committed to addressing this issue through vital research and community engagement.”