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Cancer Disparities: Making Sure Everyone Can Get Cancer Care 

Black woman meeting with a healthcare provider

Anyone can get cancer. But not everyone gets the same chance to fight it. People of color and those living in rural areas with fewer resources have a harder time getting cancer care.  

At UVA Health, we want to remove these barriers. Overcoming cancer disparities begins with understanding the diverse needs of the people we serve. And reaching beyond our walls to meet them.  

We’re working to get more people screened for cancers.

And for those facing cancer, we’re making sure they get access to the best cancer care available. This sometimes means a chance to participate in a clinical trial testing the next generation of cancer treatment. 

Combating health disparities requires action in the present as well as acknowledging the past.  

Early Detection Shouldn't Be a Privilege 

Catching cancer early can make a big difference. We can find the most common cancers with effective screening tests.  

If you find breast, colon, cervical, and lung cancers early, they're easier to treat. Tests for colon and cervical cancer can even stop these cancers before they begin. 

But not having enough money, living far from doctors, or not knowing about these tests can keep people from getting them.  

At UVA Health, we’re trying to fix this by: 

Spreading the Word About Cancer Screenings 

Wendy Cohn, MEd, PhD, is UVA Health Cancer Center’s associate director for community outreach and engagement. She leads a team that works to prevent and reduce cancer in the areas UVA Health serves. 

“Screening is a way to detect cancer at its earliest stages, when it's most treatable and when you'll have the greatest chance of survival,” Cohn says. “If you wait until you have symptoms, that usually means you're getting diagnosed at a later stage. Then it’s harder to treat effectively.” 

One example in action? UVA Health works with Abundant Life Ministries in the Fifeville neighborhood of Charlottesville. Residents can get cancer screening information. They can also get services such as diabetes and high blood pressure screenings and vaccines to ensure their well-being.

Getting Prostate Cancer Screening to More Black Men 

Black men are more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men. But why this cancer disparity?  

One reason, Cohn says, is that Black men may get diagnosed at a later stage because they aren’t getting screenings.  

To help Black men survive prostate cancer, UVA Health teamed up with community leaders in Charlottesville and Danville. Together, we created a prostate cancer screening program. The program features expert talks and works with churches to connect people to local doctors for screenings.  

“We want to address some serious disparities,” Cohn says. “We’re engaging the communities and working together to develop a set of interventions that can be delivered in various settings. This is a very grassroots, community-engaged approach.” 

Investing in Our Community Partners 

At UVA Health, we’re proud to be home to one of only 56 Comprehensive Cancer Centers designated by the National Cancer Institute. This means our mission includes reducing cancer’s impact and building health equity.  

One way we do this is by awarding grants each year to several community-based projects. We invest in organizations that are working to improve cancer care and prevent cancer in innovative, and sometimes fun, ways. In 2022, for example, we gave a grant to a Richmond-based nonprofit Hitting Cancer Below the Belt. One of their awareness events is “Whack Cancer in the Gut!” pickleball tournament.  

This group aims to break through the silence surrounding colorectal cancer and make sure people start screening at age 45. They especially focus on raising awareness among those at a greater risk of early-onset and advanced stage colorectal cancer, including African Americans and those born after 1990. African Americans are about 40% more likely to die from colorectal cancer than most other groups.

Connecting More People to Cancer Clinical Trials  

Clinical trials are a way for people to get the newest forms of treatment. Studies show cancer patients who take part in clinical trials do better than those who don’t, notes Karen Ballen, MD, a UVA Health blood cancer expert. 

But getting access to cancer clinical trials isn't always easy.

To change that, we’ve partnered with cancer doctors throughout Virginia so they know about the latest cancer trials we offer. 

Other initiatives include regular visits to rural communities to tell patients about clinical trials at UVA Health.  

Don't Miss Out on Cancer Screenings

Learn why and when you need cancer screening tests.

Disparities in Cancer Clinical Trials   

Clinical trials help experts like Ballen advance cancer treatment. And for patients, this can mean better outcomes, like surviving decades after a cancer diagnosis.  

Historically, clinical trials involved more white men than any other group. But it’s important to make sure people from all different backgrounds participate in clinical trials. 

“We need to have a diverse sample within any of our clinical trials, so that we can better understand what treatments may work, or not work, for particular groups,” says Randy Jones, PhD, RN, FAAN. Jones is a UVA School of Nursing professor whose research focuses on health disparities, prostate cancer, chronic illness, and healthcare decision-making.  

He adds, “Having a diverse sample of people — within gender, race, ethnicity, culture, geographical location — helps to inform us on the different types of interventions that we can provide for others.” 

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