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Community Engagement & Health Equity, Prevention & Control

One team, one fight: community members help drive Massey’s research on disparities in cancer screening and care

Apr 13, 2021

Dr. Robert Winn speaks with community partners at Southside Medical Center during a Project COALESCE site visit on April 1, 2021 Dr. Robert Winn speaks with community partners at Southside Medical Center during a Project COALESCE site visit on April 1, 2021.

Ruth Staton spoke with conviction as she described her first years practicing nursing in Richmond. It was the early 1970’s, and the racial divide was evident in her interactions with both patients and physicians at the hospital.

“They weren’t used to having a Black woman on that floor,” Staton remembered. “A Black woman with a master’s degree.”

Staton, a board member with Capital Area Health Network (CAHN), said some level of acceptance of her skin color came over time, but race-related barriers within the medical world remain in 2021.

It is why she and dozens more community volunteers are involved with a new VCU Massey Cancer Center initiative to address inequities in colon and cervical cancer screening and care.

Project COALESCE, or Clinics & COmmunities TAckling RaciaL DisparitiEs, Systemic in (Colon and Cervical) Cancer ScrEening, launched in January 2021 with $400,000 from Pfizer Global Medical Grants. The American Cancer Society oversees it.

Visits to the CAHN Vernon J. Harris Medical and Dental Center in Church Hill and Southside Medical Center in Manchester on April 1 connected members of the Massey team with stakeholders. The meetings included discussions on the challenges many Black and Latino patients have had accessing or even learning about the latest treatments.

 “We want to change that and start the relationship early on,” explains Tracy Causey, CAHN chief executive officer. “This is our first step.”

The CAHN Vernon J. Harris Medical and Dental Center and Southside Medical Center are within the five COALESCE communities identified by Katherine Tossas, Ph.D., M.S., director of catchment area data access and alignment, Harrison Endowed Scholar in Cancer Research and Cancer Prevention and Control research member at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

By strengthening partnerships in Federally Qualified Health Centers, like participating CAHN clinics, Tossas aims to increase screenings by 5-10% and improve diagnostic follow-up processes. She also hopes to increase overall provider and community cancer screening knowledge beyond the two years for which COALESCE currently has funding.

“We need to think collectively how to do this,” said Tossas to participants at the Vernon J. Harris meeting. “We know the importance of having community intelligence at the table. Other folks may have a broader perspective.”

This outreach is part of the greater vision of Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center, who has dedicated his career to eliminating disparities in the health care system.

“We are not looking for a project. We are looking for partners. That’s what I see here,” Winn stated to community members and clinicians. “No research should come to you if it’s going to disrupt your everyday clinic flow. You need initiatives that are useful to the community now.”

“What we don’t talk about is killing us: secrets about family health,” adds Staton, referring to a tradition in many Black families not to discuss diseases and conditions for which they’re at an elevated risk. “Should I get this looked at or this screening? We need to talk more.”

According to data from the National Cancer Institute, cervical cancer is more common among Latina and Black women than women of other racial and ethnic groups. It is deadlier for Black women than any other group. 

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) “Cancer Disparities Progress Report 2020: Achieving the Bold Vision of Health Equity for Racial and Ethnic Minorities and Other Underserved Populations found Latinos have the lowest colorectal cancer screening rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States; lower screening rates among Black men and women contribute to their higher colorectal mortality rate than white patients. 

Adding insight to the community conversations about health inequities were Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach and engagement and Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Foundation Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control at VCU Massey Cancer Center and chair and professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in the VCU School of Medicine; Michelle Y. Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., senior associate dean of admissions in the VCU School of Medicine, associate professor in the department of family medicine and population health; and Katelyn Schifano, community health educator and liaison for VCU Massey Cancer Center. 

Along with CAHN Vernon J. Harris Medical and Dental Center and Southside Medical Center, Daily Planet Health Services is a third Richmond-area COALESCE site. Massey also works with community partners in Danville, Lawrenceville and Martinsville to operate the program in those areas.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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