Community cancer centers are the unsung heroes of cancer care. They are where 85% of Americans are diagnosed and treated for cancer. Unlike the large destination cancer centers you read about in national news, community cancer centers dot the country in rural, suburban and city locations as diverse as the U.S. population itself.
Hitting closer to home
Underserved patients get better cancer care at community centers
In 2007, my hospital was fortunate to be selected for the National Cancer Institute's Community Cancer Centers Program, a first-of-its-kind program to explore ways for cancer centers such as ours to increase patient access to the latest cancer treatments and support cancer research, right in our own backyards. NCI is learning from this network of 30 hospitals in 22 states and is sharing lessons learned with community cancer centers nationwide.
One aspect that has fascinated all of us in the NCCCP is how we take a common program goal—getting medically underserved patients into a system of quality cancer care—and approach it so differently based on the diverse populations that each network hospital serves. Within our communities, we all serve populations that have limited access to cancer care because of distance, lack of insurance or cultural mistrust. We are addressing these challenges through a coordinated program of strategic communications and community outreach tailored to the specific needs of the populations we serve.
Motivating people to get screened for cancer is never an easy task. So as communicators, we need to think outside the box.
At St. Joseph's/Candler, we conducted a Pamper Me Day at a community center run by our health system in one of Savannah's predominantly African-American neighborhoods. As women received free mammograms, they enjoyed complimentary manicures, beauty tips and samples, while watching a live performance by neighborhood actors that addressed women's fears, misconceptions and reasons for not seeking mammograms. The lessons learned from this event led us to a broader ongoing partnership with several local churches. By building strong relationships with church leadership, we've engaged residents in their spiritual home and significantly increased cancer screenings, especially among those who have never been screened.
In Baton Rouge, La., the NCCCP's Cancer Program of Our Lady of the Lake and Mary Bird Perkins hosted a prostate cancer screening at a historic barbershop once frequented by B.B. King and Nat King Cole. Since African-American men are 63% more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men, barbers were educated on discussing the importance of prostate screenings with their customers. On a single Saturday last fall, 82 patrons—41 who had never been screened before—left with a new haircut and a free prostate screening.
In Montana, the Billings Clinic Cancer Center continues to build trust with tribal leadership to take cancer education to the area's American Indian reservations. Billings coordinates events such as the Pink Shawl Ceremony, where women learn about breast cancer while sewing and fringing shawls for breast cancer survivors; health fairs held at powwows, amidst drum and native dance competitions; and an annual screening event in Billings that provides free gas cards, which attempts to address the financial difficulties incurred because of the great distances (200 to 300 miles) often needed to travel in vast Montana.
In La Crosse, Wis., the NCCCP's Gundersen Lutheran Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders has steadily worked to build the trust of the region's Hmong community, a growing population of Southeast Asian refugees since the late 1970s. To reach middle-age Hmong women who speak little English, last spring Gundersen Lutheran offered free mammograms and Pap tests at a local health fair staffed by Hmong interpreters and promoted through word of mouth, and posters in the city's two Asian grocery stores.
In rural Danville, Pa., Geisinger Cancer Center serves a largely Pennsylvania-Dutch population that stretches into coal country. To motivate men to get colorectal cancer screenings, Geisinger hosted a healthy cooking seminar led by the hospital's chef at a local golf club. As they sampled cuisine made to promote good colorectal health, physicians provided information and screening kits to those who were interested. Billed as a nice night out, more than 60 men came, many with their wives.
Early detection saves lives. All NCCCP hospitals have policies that all patients screened at the cancer center are offered follow-up care or treatment, regardless of income and insurance status. The NCCCP is a public-private partnership funded by the National Cancer Institute through congressional appropriations and through matching funds from the program's individual cancer centers, making it a wise investment for the federal government and communities alike.
The innovative outreach programs we conduct in Savannah may be different from what my colleagues do in Orange County, Calif., but that's the beauty of the NCCCP network. What the NCI is learning from us as it seeks to adapt best practices in all areas of cancer care will one day help community cancer centers nationwide. The NCCCP is a program worth supporting and we at St. Joseph's/Candler hope to see it around for a long time.
Melissa Allen is system director of marketing and public relations at St. Joseph's/Candler, Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion, Savannah, Ga.
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