“In my opinion, the study’s most disturbing revelation was this: black women living in the United States die at the same rate from cervical cancer as women living in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Christopher Pennell, Ph.D., associate director for Community Engagement at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, referring to a recent study about cervical cancer. “If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”
The study showed cervical cancer is killing more woman than medical professionals originally thought. Black women in the United States are dying from the disease at a rate 77% higher than previously estimated and white women are dying at a rate 47% higher.
Pennell says unfortunately, those numbers do surprise him. “We knew there were differences in cervical cancer mortality rates between white and black women in the United States, but not to the extent now reported.”
In response to the disparities they already knew existed, the University of Minnesota has been making efforts to close racial gaps, largely in the form of outreach. Many of the outreach efforts provide knowledge to the community, which is critical to addressing the underlying causes of health disparities, whether it’s knowledge of cancer itself or the best care and how to get it. Experts admit this outreach is a give and take and community input is critical to the University as it shapes research and care efforts.
The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota plays a huge role in this process. The mission of the Masonic Cancer Center is to reduce cancer’s burden on all Minnesotans. To facilitate this, the center formed an office of Education and Community Engagement to share information about how to prevent, identify, and treat cancer with the public. That office also acts as a tool for Minnesotans to voice their concerns they may have about cancer, often meeting directly with various community groups to have these discussions.
“These concerns impact how we allocate resources and efforts,” explained Pennell. For example, promoting HPV vaccines and lung cancer prevention.
The Masonic Cancer Center also works closely with the University’s Program in Health Disparities Research on various cancer initiatives. It’s this program’s goal to promote equity in all aspects of health, including cancer. This is done through collaborative research, education, and community partnerships. Additional support comes from the Office of the President to fund research in precision medicine that addresses lung cancer in Native Americans.
As far as the importance of staying informed and educated on this subject, the stakes are high. Reminds Pennell: “This disease affects all of us; one in three women and one in two men in the United States will develop cancer in her/his lifetime. So we all have a vested interest in reducing this burden.”
Pennell also encourages people to continue seeking education and outreach, as the University does, because the information is often changing.
“I hope people remember researchers and cancer care professionals are constantly generating new data, and trying to look at things in a new light, to prevent or cure cancer.” said Pennell.