Raising Awareness, Reducing Health Disparities among Minorities

Pictured: William Alago

Memorial Sloan Kettering radiologist William Alago discusses the importance of early cancer detection

Cancer survivorship has improved in recent years for most Americans, but not everyone is benefiting equally. News stories and expert opinions about health disparities underscore how certain segments of the population continue to suffer disproportionately from cancer.

National Minority Cancer Awareness Week — established in 1987 to highlight the cancer prevention, screening, treatment, and related resources available in the community — aims to reduce inequalities in cancer among groups at greatest risk of developing or dying from the disease.

The week also gives medical professionals and researchers the opportunity to focus on ways to address the differences in cancer incidence, prevalence, mortality, and survival that exist among medically underserved populations.

Improving Access to Cancer Care

Memorial Sloan Kettering hosted several events during the awareness week to highlight our efforts, as well as those of our community partners, to decrease cancer disparities and improve health outcomes in racial and ethnic minorities; people with disabilities; the economically disadvantaged; and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

A free seminar held at the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention (RLCCCP) in Harlem focused on ways to empower people with disabilities to seek access to cancer care, such as improving access to sign-language interpreters for the hearing impaired and to healthcare facilities that can offer mammography to wheelchair-bound individuals.

Participants also learned about resources for people with severe and persistent mental illness, many of whom have limited access to preventative healthcare and wellness information that would support healthy lifestyle choices, resulting in an increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Another event, held at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem, featured talks about cancer in minority communities. Memorial Sloan Kettering speakers included radiologist William Alago, who provided an overview of cancer screening guidelines and the importance of early detection, and social worker Amanda Amodio, who discussed available cancer support resources.

Psychologist Jack Burkhalter highlighted the health disparities faced by the LGBT community, which he says are likely caused by stigmas and barriers to care such as fear of hostility, lack of legal protection and partner benefits, and inadequate medical training about LGBT health and culture.

“We don’t know what the cancer incidence is for the LGBT community, and that has to do with how cancer information is collected. There’s an invisibility there, and if we don’t collect this data, people at the grassroots level can’t advocate for action to address the cancer concerns that exist in this population,” said Dr. Burkhalter, who has taken a leadership role in developing a National LGBT Cancer Action Plan to identify and address gaps in care in this underrepresented group.

Spanish-language interpretation services and staffed resource tables were available at both events, which were sponsored by Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Breast Examination Center of Harlem, the Office of Diversity Programs in Clinical Care, Research, and Training, and the Partnership Community Outreach Program, as well as RLCCCP. Participants were invited to ask questions; to receive information about cancer care, clinical trials, and support services; and to schedule appointments for cancer screenings.

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Educating Employees about Health Disparities

Memorial Sloan Kettering held two additional seminars for staff members emphasizing the organization’s ongoing commitment to raising awareness and encouraging sensitivity around minority health issues among its employees.

Panelists explored the value of understanding why race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation matter in today’s healthcare environment. They also discussed various research, advocacy, and outreach efforts in place to help overcome the language, economic, and cultural barriers to accessing cancer care among immigrant populations in New York.

“It’s important that employees at all levels are informed about the work being done to address the health disparities experienced by minority and underserved populations, including our efforts to educate and increase participation among minorities in clinical trials as part of our mission to provide high-quality cancer care in our community,” said panelist and gynecologic surgeon Carol Brown, Director of the Office of Diversity Programs in Clinical Care, Research, and Training.

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