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First Lady Jill Biden visits Massey to discuss cancer disparities and community engaged research

Feb 24, 2021


Jill Biden, Ed.D., the First Lady of the United States, met with scientists, doctors and community leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center on Wednesday to learn how they are working together to address cancer disparities.

“Cancer is so personal to me. In our lifetime, the president and I have found ourselves sitting alongside too many chemotherapy chairs and hospital beds. Cancer has taken more lives of our friends and families than we could ever imagine. It’s broken our hearts and it’s stolen our joy,” said Biden, a longtime advocate for cancer education and research. “And we’re not alone. I’m sure you all have stories of your own. Cancer touches everyone. But out of sorrow, we found purpose. The president and I made it our mission to end cancer as we know it.”

Biden toured several Massey labs and learned about the cutting-edge cancer research being conducted. She praised not only the scientists’ research but also the center’s efforts to build trust and collaborate with the community to reduce inequities.

“The researchers and medical professionals here at Massey are pushing the science of medicine every day,” she said. “But I’m just as grateful for the work [Massey does] for the art of medicine, as well. Building trust and relationships. Empowering communities to bring their own talents to this fight.”

While cancer affects all population groups in the United States, certain groups face a greater risk of developing or dying from cancer because of social, environmental and economic disadvantages.

Black Americans, for example, have higher death rates than all other racial or ethnic groups for most cancers. Black women are more likely than white women to die of breast cancer, despite having similar rates of occurrence. And Black men are twice as likely as white men to die of prostate cancer and continue to have the highest prostate cancer mortality among all U.S. population groups, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Biden, who was accompanied by Norman Sharpless, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute, visited the labs of several researchers in the Goodwin Research Laboratory, including the lab of Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center and a pulmonologist and cancer disparities researcher who has dedicated his career to addressing inequities in the health care system.

“It’s clear that science alone will not reduce health disparities,” Winn said. “We need more robust community outreach and engagement efforts to reduce health disparities. We need to emphasize the implementation sciences as much as the discovery sciences and align them. This means working with the community to conduct research that positively impacts their health and ensures their equal access to cancer care. It also means engaging community members in our research studies, bringing our trials to community hospitals and medical practices statewide to expand access to cancer research for minority and underserved patients, and partnering with community groups to offer outreach programs to rural and urban areas of need.” 

Winn thanked Biden for visiting VCU Massey Cancer Center and for the Biden Administration’s work on COVID-19 and focus on public health. He also thanked her for her personal and longtime commitment to cancer research.

In March 2020, Winn launched Facts & Faith Fridays, a weekly call with Black clergy in Virginia to address the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on the Black community. The call evolved to also address racial disparities in cancer and continues to discuss the pandemic. In January, Sharpless joined Facts & Faith Fridays for a virtual discussion on COVID-19 and cancer. And the group also co-hosted a virtual discussion on COVID-19 and vaccines with Anthony Fauci, M.D., the nation’s top infectious disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Biden said Facts & Faith Fridays shows “what’s possible when our leadership reflects the communities our organizations serve.”

“From lifesaving information about COVID, to cancer screenings and prevention, to addressing the conditions that affect wellness — like housing and employment — this group is tackling some of the most important health issues right now,” Biden said. “And they’re doing the work by working hand in hand with the Richmond community and beyond, and meeting people where they are. This group reminds us that you don’t have to have a medical degree to help. You just have to reach out to the people who are hurting.”

Biden heard from a panel of speakers that included Rev. F. Todd Gray, Pastor of the Fifth Street Baptist Church, and Rudene Mercer Haynes, J.D., a member of Massey’s Advisory Board and partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, who told her how Winn has engaged with Black faith leaders to provide trustworthy, accurate information about COVID, cancer and other health disparities affecting their congregations.

Gray praised Facts & Faith Fridays and the wider collaboration between Massey and the community. “The relationship that we have has been innovative and very, very beneficial to the African American community,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful collaboration.”

The panelists also included Khalid Matin, M.D., associate medical director of the Cancer Service Line at VCU Massey Cancer Center and interim chair of the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care at the VCU School of Medicine. Matin described how Massey is one of just 14 cancer centers in the country to hold a Minority/Underserved NCI Community Oncology Research Program grant from the NCI to support its statewide research affiliation network. This network allows Massey to expand access to cutting-edge clinical trials for minority and underserved patients by partnering with community hospitals and oncology practices across Virginia.

And it also included Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach, engagement, and health disparities at VCU Massey Cancer Center, and the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Foundation Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control and chair and professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the School of Medicine. Sheppard discussed how Massey’s research is informed by and directly impacting the communities it serves.

“At Massey we recognize that cancer does not just impact individuals. It impacts family and community. As a result, we work to engage the community,” Sheppard said. “We don’t want to just be a place where people come when they’re sick. We don’t want to be a place that only produces great science but it doesn’t translate to the community.”

Massey has implemented a “community-to-bench model,” she said, fostering bi-directional relationships between the cancer center and the community, and allowing Massey to bring discoveries from the laboratories to the patient bedside and back into the community.

“We bring community members in, we hear and learn from them,” Sheppard said. “And we are in the community and we learn what their priorities are. We also put our outreach and delivery programs in community settings, like libraries. This is helping us to understand how we can truly make a difference in the community.”

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., welcomed Biden to VCU on Wednesday, and said her visit highlights the groundbreaking research and treatment occurring at VCU and VCU Health, noting Massey’s designation as Virginia’s first National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

“It emphasizes our concerted efforts to address disparities in cancer prevention, treatment and research,” Rao said. “This commitment is core to who we are as the state’s largest safety net hospital and the region’s number one hospital. We believe in access and excellence in patient care.”

In closing, Biden said the visit highlighted not only the great research being done at places like Massey but also the role of the churches and faith leaders amid the pandemic, noting how they have served as important and trusted providers of health information, food and are also now serving as vaccine distribution sites.

“This has been amazing. What I’ve seen of the research here, what’s going on with cancer and how you’re trying to really address the health disparities in this country. It’s about time that we really started getting serious about this,” she said. “This pandemic has really shined this bright, hot light on this subject.”

Written by: Brian McNeill, VCU Public Affairs

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