Medical experts, cancer survivors, and philanthropists discussed the prevalence of cancer and the systemic inequities in the healthcare system during an event at the Harvard School of Public Health on Thursday to mark World Cancer Day, an international day to raise awareness about cancer.
Moderated by Pamela D. Oliver, a correspondent for Fox Sports, the panel included Chaunté Lowe, a cancer survivor and four-time Olympian; Dikembe Mutombo, an eight-time NBA all-star and humanitarian; and Ronald E. Rivera, a cancer patient and the coach of the Washington Football Team.
The event also featured three medical experts: Katrina A. Armstrong, a professor at Harvard Medical School; Meg O’Brien, vice president for Global Cancer Treatment at the American Cancer Society; and Timothy R. Rebbeck, a professor at the School of Public Health who studies cancer prevention.
Following an introduction by University President Lawrence S. Bacow and School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams, the panelists discussed their personal experiences with cancer, the importance of early screening for cancer prevention, and reasons for hope moving forward in the fight against cancer.
Lowe, a survivor of breast cancer, shared her story as a woman of color trying to obtain proper medical care in a health care system riddled with systemic inequities.
“It was very difficult to even get in for an appointment for a mammogram and an ultrasound,” Lowe said. “The doctor decided to tell me that [the lump] was just a normal lymph node and not to come back for six years.”
Unconvinced by her physician’s diagnosis, Lowe proceeded to get a second opinion and was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36.
“The lesson really, from Chaunté’s story, is to trust your gut,” Oliver said. “If you feel that something is not right, stop at nothing to get to the bottom of it. Early detection, as we’ve heard already, can make the difference between a successful outcome and a catastrophic one.”
Armstrong — who also serves as physician-in-chief of Massachusetts General Hospital — echoed Oliver’s remarks and advocated for early screening for cancer.
“We should take every lump seriously,” she said. “Everything should be done to make sure that that lump is not cancer, and everybody should be focusing on that.”
Armstrong recommended all women to begin cancer screening before the age of 50, especially if they have risk factors or family history.
She also discussed the prevalence of racism and discrimination in the health care system and how it has reduced trust in physician care.
“We, I, all of us in healthcare, have to make that system trustworthy. And to do that, we’ve got to root out issues of racism and discrimination,” Armstrong said. “We also need to change who’s in the system, hiring people of color, building a clinical workforce of color that matches the patients who we serve, because we know that improves communication.”
O’Brien, who has led a portfolio of projects expanding access to cancer treatment throughout Africa, noted the importance of collaborating with local organizations to educate people about the signs and symptoms of cancer. She also highlighted the need to address the fear of cancer and its diagnosis, as well as educating health care providers to ensure proper medical treatment and care.
Rebbeck discussed the role of universal healthcare, education, and awareness on cancer treatment and prevention in the United States.
“We need to work to get universal coverage for all people, but it’s also important for us to think about the timeline before there is universal coverage,” Rebbeck said.
“The system isn’t the only thing that determines what our fate is. The system disadvantages some people, no question. We have to deal with that,” he added. “But we have a lot of resources that are available to help us get around what the system has done to some people.”
—Staff writer Mayesha R. Soshi can be reached at email@example.com.