Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and Black Americans are more likely to die from cancer than their White counterparts. It was only recently that the pandemic opened up the eyes of the nation to the myriad of systemic health inequities in our nation's healthcare system. Black families have carried a significant burden due to these health disparities.
Although work is being done earnestly to study and implement solutions, we don't know how long these efforts will take. So on this Juneteenth holiday weekend and during the 2nd Annual National Black Family Cancer Awareness Week, let us look at ways to empower Black families to survive and thrive with these tips to prevent and battle cancer.
My family had to bear this burden nine years ago when just after my 38th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 3 Inflammatory Breast Cancer. It's a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that does not present as a lump, cannot be detected until stage 3, and has a 5-year survival rate of 40%. Thankfully, I had doctors who understood the seriousness of the situation and even discussed with me that health disparities exist for Black women diagnosed with this form of breast cancer. I knew from the beginning that I had a serious battle on my hands.
Thankfully, I'm still here, but it was not without having to climb a steep learning curve and with some bumps and bruises along the way. Many lessons were learned during my own cancer experience, continued advocacy, and consulting work in the cancer space. I'd like to share 10 Ways Black Families Can Prevent and Prepare for a Battle Against Cancer.
1. Reduce Your Risk of Cancer
There are so many ways to get a head start on your health and implement ways to reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Check out some tips to reduce your risk of cancer below;
Know Your Family History:
Knowing your family's health history is essential. It's a question asked at almost every medical appointment because it provides clues for medical providers to investigate your health challenges. Having this information helps with early detection and treatment. Suppose a close relative is diagnosed with cancer. In that case, your doctor may consider ordering specific cancer screening tests for you much earlier than the current cancer screening guidelines.
You can learn your family history in one of two ways. One way is through family discussions about your health history. You can use holidays like Juneteenth to initiate such a conversation. Suppose that proves to be a bit complicated. In that case, another option is to meet with a genetic counselor to discuss pursuing genetic testing. This may lead to a need to get genetic counseling, but Black women are less likely to be referred for genetic testing. Having genetic counselors from diverse backgrounds is helping to tackle health disparities. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of Black genetic counselors. Still, thankfully new programs have been initiated to increase the number of Black Genetic Counselors and increase access to genetic testing.
Eat Healthy Foods
It's no secret that a healthy diet can reduce your risk for cancer. Still, due to structural racism, many Black families live in communities with food deserts. This study on food deserts in the District of Columbia highlights challenges and recommendations to overcome this health disparity. Should you have access to food sources, WebMD highlights superfoods, like broccoli, that aid in the cancer fight. Check out these delivery services that provide fresh produce.
Get Regular Checkups and Screenings:
If you visit your doctor regularly, you can be tested for many different cancers. Early detection through cancer screenings can save lives. The number of cancer screenings for people of color is lower than for our White counterparts. The American Cancer Society has published these general cancer screening guidelines for those with average cancer risk.
With many cancers disproportionately impacting Black people, some guidelines have been adjusted for when cancer screenings should occur for Black patients. Suppose there is a history of cancer in your family. In that case, you should discuss this history with your family doctor or learn whether or not adjustments in the screening timeline should be made for you. One study showed the rate of cancer screenings nearly doubled for patients just due to the simple act of sending a text message and/or call from the provider.
Discuss the importance of exercise and how it can help reduce your risk of cancer. Yes, too many of us carry some extra weight, which can lead to serious health problems like cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity is a leading cause of preventable death in Black families. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, including exercising regularly. Exercise has many benefits for your overall health, including lowering your cancer risk. The American Cancer Society says that exercise reduces the risk of 13 types of cancer.
Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, which is important because obesity increases your risk of cancer. Exercise also helps improve your immune system function and reduces inflammation in the body, which is essential for preventing cancer. Additionally, exercise helps improve blood circulation and oxygenation throughout the body, which can help stop or slow the growth of tumors.
It is no secret that stress plays a significant role in our overall health. Racism and other forms of discrimination can add to the stress burden for Black families. The impact of such stress can be particularly harmful, leading to an increased risk for cancer. Fortunately, therapies available can help reduce stress and its harmful effects. Spending time with family and friends, engaging in physical activity, and talking to a therapist effectively reduce stress.
Therapists need to be aware of these disparities and help their patients address any additional sources of stress. Here is a list of therapy sources that can help manage stress due to racial trauma. These therapies can help improve our physical and emotional well-being, which in turn can help reduce our risk of cancer. So if you're feeling stressed out, don't hesitate to seek help. The benefits will be worth it!
2. Listen to Your Body
If something is hurting and doesn't feel right, go to the doctor or a local clinic to investigate. I have heard too many stories about people noticing something different with their body that was uncomfortable or causing them some pain. They decided to ignore it, and it was too late to do something by the time they got to the doctor or the emergency room. Remember that your chances of being able to treat cancer significantly increase when caught early.
For some, the fear of incurring medical debt prevents you from visiting a medical facility. Consider the cost to your family if cancer is detected so late that you receive a terminal diagnosis, lessening your chances of survival. Some federally qualified health centers offer medical care with customers paying on a sliding scale (or pay what you can). Some centers have partnerships with large cancer centers where patients can receive care.
3. Understand Your Diagnosis
When first diagnosed with cancer, everything probably feels like it's spinning. You may go through a series of diagnostic tests and finally obtain an initial diagnosis and recommended course of treatment. When it comes to cancer, one of the most important decisions a person will make is what treatment to choose. This decision is not only complex but can also be life-changing. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides an excellent summary of the cancer treatment decision process to help people make informed choices.
The first step in making a treatment decision is considering all available options. This includes both standard and experimental treatments. Understanding each option's potential benefits and risks is essential before deciding on a course of action. Once you've considered all of your options, it's important to get a diagnosis from a doctor who specializes in cancer care. This diagnosis will help you determine which treatments are most appropriate for you.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides an excellent summary of the cancer treatment decision process and factors to consider.
4. Take a Companion to Cancer Appointments
Cancer patients and their loved ones often feel overwhelmed and lost when it comes to gaining a comfortable understanding of the disease and treatment. The healthcare team is there to help and wants you to have all the information you need to make informed decisions about your care.
Having a companion present during these appointments can help with taking notes so you can stay focused on your discussion with the provider. They can also help you remember what was said and provide a valuable resource for future reference. It can also help you generate questions to pose to the provider and ensure you don't forget to ask anything important. Having a companion there may also help you feel more confident and not fear asking for clarification when something is said that you don't understand.
5. Get a 2nd Opinion at a Top Cancer Center
Yes, local and regional hospitals are convenient, and some can be top-tier. Still, the benefits of seeking a second opinion from a top cancer center that ONLY focuses on cancer are enormous. It can be scary and confusing if you've just been diagnosed with cancer. You may feel like you want to do anything to make sure you get the best possible care.
One option is to seek a second opinion from a top cancer center. A second opinion can help ensure you receive the best diagnosis and treatment plan. It can also provide peace of mind if you feel overwhelmed or uncertain about your diagnosis. It's important to note that not all cancer centers are created equal. Some are better equipped to treat specific types of cancer than others. So, it's essential to do your research before seeking a second opinion. Let your primary care doctor know if you decide to go with a second opinion.
Perhaps you are concerned about travel expenses to seek a 2nd opinion. A few top cancer centers like Cleveland Clinic and Dana Farber offer virtual consultations for a second opinion.
6. Don't Suffer in Silence
When it comes to your health challenges, are you more likely to keep them to yourself or share them with others? So many people, myself included, have received excellent recommendations because someone knew we were fighting cancer. Some of those recommendations can come from most unlikely places. For me, it came from my kid's school dean, who connected me to a local survivor of the same rare form of breast cancer. That survivor connected me with a wealth of resources, ultimately leading me to the premier cancer doctor world for inflammatory breast cancer.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, there are a lot of things going through your mind. You may feel scared, alone, or confused. One thing that you may not think about is how to tell your friends and family. It can be hard to know what to say and how to say it. However, sharing your diagnosis with the people in your life is essential. Keeping your diagnosis a secret may prevent you from getting the support you need. It can also lead to missed opportunities for accessing valuable resources. Sharing your diagnosis can also help others understand what you are going through. They may be able to offer support or just listen when you need it. It can also help them understand why you are acting differently than usual. There is no right or wrong way to tell people about your cancer diagnosis.
7. Seek Support
Cancer can be a very frightening diagnosis; for many people, learning about and dealing with the disease is too much to handle alone. If you haven't been impacted by cancer, then you probably wouldn't know about the existence of patient navigators. The first patient navigation program for cancer patients was created in 1990 by Dr. Harold Freeman, a Black doctor in Harlem, to address cancer disparities. Today, patient navigators help provide "assistance with transportation, interpretation, applying for insurance, filling out medical forms, scheduling and coordinating appointments, providing emotional and psychosocial support, education about treatment and follow-up, and community-based resources."
Thousands of support organizations provide information, resources, and hope to cancer patients and their families, each with its own focus. Some provide general information about all types of cancer. In contrast, others specialize in a specific type of cancer or patient population. Organizations also focus on emotional support, providing a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on for those struggling.
Ask your loved ones for recommendations of organizations they know that provide local support. You can also search www.FindCancerHelp.com to find organizations that provide products, support, or resources for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers.
8. Counter Bias in the Medical Setting
Structural racism and bias have a significant impact on the health of Black Americans. Studies have shown evidence of implicit bias in the medical community and how it negatively impacts communication between patients and providers and directly affects patient-treatment decisions. Structural racism in the form of historic redlining has been directly linked to breast cancer mortality.
Racism can manifest as a doctor not listening to a patient's concerns or downplaying their symptoms. It can also show up in unequal treatment, with black patients receiving less aggressive care than their white counterparts. One way to combat this bias is for patients to be aware of their rights and advocate for themselves.
If you feel your doctor is not taking your concerns seriously or treating you differently than other patients, speak up. It's unfortunate, but as Black Americans, we must be prepared to counter this bias, so it doesn't negatively impact our health.
9. Know the Conflict and Grievance Resolution Process
Conflict and grievance resolution is vital in any workplace but especially critical in a medical setting. When disputes and conflicts arise between patients, employees, or volunteers, it can impact the quality of care and services received in a medical setting. It can also create an uncomfortable and hostile patient-provider environment.
The first step in resolving a conflict or grievance is understanding the provider's conflict and grievance resolution process. This process should be clearly outlined on the provider's website. If you are experiencing a conflict or grievance, you should try to resolve it with the person involved. You can escalate the issue to a supervisor or manager if that doesn't work. If necessary, you can file a formal complaint with the provider or a governing body, such as the insurance carrier or local licensing authority.
The conflict and grievance resolution process can be intimidating, but it is essential to remember that you have rights. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has outlined a complaint and appeals process that can be used if "you have been discriminated against, your rights have been violated, or the wrong decision was made."
10. Accept Help
When going through cancer treatment, it's essential to be willing to accept help from others. This can be difficult for some people, as they may feel a sense of pride or stubbornness that prevents them from asking for assistance. It's crucial to remember that cancer is a difficult battle, and you need all the help you can get.
Many will offer to help; here are some ways they can help you. You can ask for rides to your appointments, have someone cook meals for you, or have someone do your laundry. If you're unsure what type of help you need, don't hesitate to ask other cancer survivors who have already been there. It's also important to remember that accepting help doesn't mean you're weak or helpless.
In conclusion, many Black families bear the burden of cancer disparities, and our nation has a long way to go to fix these systemic issues. System change can take an enormous amount of time, and our families deserve the best now. I hope that these 10 tips to prevent and battle cancer help increase your family's awareness of the many ways they can be empowered before and during a cancer journey. Please share this article with your loved ones.
If you want to learn more about my cancer journey and more tips that can help you, please check out my book called, I've Been Diagnosed, Now What? Courageously Fighting Cancer in the Face of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.
Thank you for reading this blog and feel free to contact me at Katrece@FindCancerHelp.com.
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Cancer Survivor helping you become your own best advocate.