'We still have so much work to do'

Hutch health disparities researcher speaks out on new national report decrying lack of equity in cancer care
A photograph of Fred Hutch public health researcher Kathy Briant talking to a woman who is sitting at a laptop writing a grant.
Fred Hutch public health researcher Kathy Briant works with community organizations to help improve access to cancer prevention screening and other health care. Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The American Association of Cancer Research recently released its inaugural Cancer Disparities Progress Report (read our story on the new report). Longtime Hutch health disparities researcher Kathy Briant offered these insights in response.

When I first began doing cancer outreach/education/engagement work, it was under an National Cancer Institute-funded program called the Special Populations Networks, or SPNs, for cancer awareness, research and training. (You can read about achievements and lessons learned in this 2016 supplemental issue of the journal Cancer.)

Those networks were launched in 2000 because at that time, NCI already knew that there were cancer health disparities across the cancer continuum for underserved communities. The SPNs eventually transitioned into the Community Network Program Centers which, here in our own backyard [in Washington state], funded cancer intervention work out in the Yakima Valley up to 2010.

I mention this history because 20 years later, we still face the same realities the report outlines: Cancer health disparities are a public health challenge, and disparities for racial and ethnic minority populations as well as underrepresented groups still persist across the cancer care continuum.

Yes, we have improved overall cancer survival and we are seeing overall cancer death rates narrow between populations groups, but as the report states, advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment do not benefit everyone equally.

Perhaps we need reports like these to be continuously released to remind us that we still have so much work to do. I appreciate the American Association of Cancer Research's call to action to drive progress against cancer health disparities. And I would like to emphasize those committed to addressing cancer disparities need to make sure they are involving all stakeholders at the table — people in the community, providers, health care systems, insurers/payers, cancer research funding entities, cancer-related and -focused organizations, the government and policymakers — to truly drive change.

As the last 20 years have shown, this change has been happening at a slow pace and our underrepresented communities suffer the brunt of the burden and the losses. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have opened up a window of opportunity to drive change in addressing these cancer health disparities.

The Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium has research happening in many of these areas where cancer health disparities exist — including investigating preventable risk factors and cancer screening/early detection, which can help prevent some cancers before they even develop. 

Efforts under the Hutch Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion are also focusing on addressing disparities by increasing diversity in our training and workforce, which will help our institution make sure that our workforce is reflective of the communities we are working to serve. 

These are exciting times. My hope is over the next 20 years we make progress at a more accelerated pace than we have over the last 20 years. It will be essential in order to increase access to advances in cancer research for everyone in the U.S., regardless of where you live, your race/ethnicity, your socioeconomic status, your sexual and gender identity, or your age.   

Kathy Briant, M.P.H., C.H.E.S, is program administrator for Fred Hutch’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, or OCOE. T
hroughout her career at Fred Hutch, Briant has served as a catalyst for cancer control planning and implementation in the Northwest region as she and her staff have worked with organizations that reach medically underserved populations to help plan, implement and evaluate effective and sustainable cancer control strategies. She currently works with the OCOE team to use a community-based participatory research approach to implement interventions that address issues around health disparities.

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