Athletes team up to help close the gap in health disparities

National Minority Cancer

 

By DIANE XAVIER

The Dallas Examiner

 

Desoto native and WNBA Dallas Wings player Moriah Jefferson is considered a leader both on and off the court. Jefferson, who helped lead UConn to four consecutive NCAA Division 1 Women’s College basketball national championships from 2013 to 2016 during her college years, is using her platform to help spread the word about closing the gap in the health disparities in her community.

Jefferson, along with other Dallas Wings athletes, coaches and staff, is partnering with the American Cancer Society on a health equity social media campaign as April is Minority Cancer Awareness Month.

Various team members have been releasing ACS videos on social media promoting the importance of cancer prevention and to help close the gap in health care inequities experienced in minority communities.

Jefferson knows firsthand what it is like to lose a close family member to cancer.

“My aunt, Sylvia Jefferson, actually had breast cancer when I was younger and she passed away from it,” Jefferson said. “It was something unexpected. She fought really hard and ended up getting to remission, and she ended up losing her battle to cancer. It came back and actually spread to the rest of her body. Watching that experience, it was not fun at all. It was definitely tough and that’s why it’s so important to have this partnership with the American Cancer Society because in doing things like early screenings and getting prevention options and treatments options so you can catch these things early so that no one has to go through this because I know it was definitely hard for me and my family and I know it is hard for other families out there.”

Jeff Fehlis, executive vice president of the American Cancer Society’s South Region, said African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial/ethnic group in the United States for most cancers.

“Cancer affects everybody, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Fehlis said. “If you think about it, racism, poverty and other inequities can make a person’s cancer journey all the more challenging. While we are making progress and mortality rates continue to drop each year, there are populations that are marginalized and continue to bear a disproportionate burden of cancer and we are trying to level that.”

The ACS is the largest cancer fighting organization in the United States. The organization will turn 108-years old next month, according to Fehlis.

“Our purpose is to have research for prevention diagnosis and treatments. And what is so special about this month – and every month – is it brings awareness to a lot of the health equities challenges that communities of color are facing at cancer fight,” he said. Our partnership with Moriah and the Dallas Wings is so valuable because it brings both a voice and visibility into these communities to really create the awareness to educate and to hopefully get people to act, which is really, really important in the cancer fight.”

Jefferson said the Dallas Wings have been promoting the cancer initiative for years.

“We also plan to have messages on the large screen at our games,” she said.

Jefferson said she believed it was important to use her platform as an athlete to get the message out to minority communities about cancer prevention.

“Being in a league that is full of women, we are at risk for cancer as anybody else is. And on top of that, our league is predominately Black,” she said. “We have 90% I think the number of Black women that are in our league so for me it is very important to bring awareness to it, continue to educate each other, and I just sell ourselves for our fans because if we can help save even if it is just one life, I think it is very, very important for us to continue to bring awareness to cancers such as breast cancer.”

Fehlis said several factors contribute to communities of color experiencing health disparities.

“African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States for most cancers,” Fehlis said. “Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than White women overall. These can be attributed to screening disparities. Disparities have really increased for people with greater social or economic barriers, and you see that everyday. We’ve seen during the pandemic an additional five million Black or Hispanic Americans lost their health care insurance and traditionally screening rates are 40% to 50% lower for the uninsured and we just had added five million people into that group. We are looking hard at all the barriers. And the barriers are either medical mistrust, access to care which is a critical barrier.”

Fehlis said other financial barriers, including housing and food challenges could also impact the chances of a person being screened or tested for early signs of cancer.

“This year alone, we are funding 59 health equity grants investing $50 million dollars in research to better understand what these barriers are, what those disparities and inequities cause them and most importantly, how can we decrease them. Your zip code should  never be a detriment of your chance to survive cancer. It is critical that we get access to everyone that needs it,” he said.

Cancer risk also is affected by social and economic disparities such as lack of education, access to healthy food, stable and affordable housing, health insurance, paid or sick family leave benefits and access to high quality health care. These factors also add to the “cancer fight” after a diagnosis is made, according to Fehlis.

He said structural racism also plays a role in the disproportionate numbers of cancer risks for minorities.

“It is challenging enough but there are a number of challenges that any community faces with a cancer diagnosis,” he said. “Getting screened early is critical, getting access to those screenings. We have programs that will provide rides to treatment to screening for folks that can’t get there themselves. We have programs and partnerships that can assist people in getting screened if they don’t have the means. It is a significant challenge in each of these communities and the numbers show. We got to level that playing field. It is critical that we do that because what happens is screenings don’t happen, those early screenings are missed, a cancer diagnosis persists at a much later stage which presents a much greater challenge to treat. So we are trying to remove barriers. We are advocates in every state house to try to expand coverage to Medicaid. We are trying to remove any of the barriers in some of these communities that really don’t have access to those healthy foods where they sit in a food desert. There are just a ton of things out there that affect us in the cancer fight, but it affects others in other health related issues, other economic issues that are out there but it is really critical that we hit this playing field level and give everybody an equal chance to not only get screened early but survive the cancer diagnosis.”

Jefferson said growing up, she had many friends who faced challenges as well to get equal access to health care.

“I have a lot of friends who even today have trouble just going to regular checkups or regular visits, because it is hard for them to have health care and we are in the middle of a pandemic right now. And so definitely just being in certain areas, food, having healthy food in the areas like in Desoto, Cedar Hill and Duncanville, there is not much acces as there is in other areas. That is one of the things that was challenging for me growing up,” she said.

Jefferson emphasized the importance of getting screened or tested for cancer.

“I know it can be a scary thing or scary process, but it is better to be prepared,” she said. “At the end of the day in regards to what happens, God is in control and we could have things that come into our lives each and every day. But at this point we should do it early and regularly and I think if we do that, then you can give yourself a better life and chance.”

Fehlis said many things can contribute to a cancer diagnosis according to research.

“The core if you think about it is family history, know your family history, if you don’t research it, try to find out because that tells a lot,” he said. “And it may allow you to get screened earlier than the recommended ages. Obesity is a big, big leading cause that can trigger some cancers as well.”

Fehlis gave some tips on lowering one’s risk and cancer prevention as well. She talked about the importance of healthy eating, getting regular exercise at an early age and staying on that path to keep those healthy habits. But also, regular making visits with your doctors and early screenings, including mammograms, colonoscopy and other preventative screenings have been proven to help detected cancers early, treat them easier and survive at a much higher rate.

Additionally, the American Cancer Society has encouraged minority communities to avoid tobacco products.

Fehlis offered a few warning signs to look for.

“If something is not right, get it checked out,” he said. “That is the cardinal rule of anything. Don’t ignore any early signs of symptoms of pain that persists or any type of lumps you detect or anything like that. Act on them because the earlier you get into seeing someone, if it is a cancer, the sooner you get in the sooner your chances of survival go up.”

Fehlis also provided some resources for cancer where people can turn to for more information.

“The American Cancer Society has a 24/7 cancer information center that can help folks navigate and educate, so that they can ask any questions,” he said. “You can also visit us at https://www.cancer.org/healthequity and there is talk about healthy eating, exercise, importance of screenings, how to get access to those screenings, anything you need to help you through any kind of information or if you received a diagnosis, we are there for you 24/7 throughout the 365 days a year.”

Jefferson encourages parents to help their children with good health by getting them involved with sports.

“It just helps you to stay healthy, keeps you active, and gets you out of the house,” Jefferson said. “And I definitely think that in this day and age right now it is really important for us to do that.”

Jefferson has this message to the African American community.

“We are here for you,” she said. “Anything that you need, this is what we are here for. We are trying to educate to bring awareness to cancer in general and we are here. You need to get screened. You need to get tested and please do it now and if you have any questions, you can go to the American Cancer Society for more information.”

The ACS has additional information available at https://www.cancer.org.

“At the end of the day, we are in this fight together,” Jefferson said. “So, I am here for you.”

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