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A 2006 Sinai Urban Health Institute study stunned its audience with figures showing that in metropolitan Chicago, women of color were dying from breast cancer at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts.
A follow-up study showed that the death rate in Chicago for black women with breast cancer was 62 percent higher than that for white women. Furthermore, the gap was widening: In 1980 white and black women had an equal chance of dying of the disease.
Evonda Thomas, director of the City of Evanston Health Department, says among health-care professionals who discuss and work with them, “the shock value of these figures has worn off.” But she is confident they still have potential to jolt others.
The statistics have particular relevance for Evanston, with its large African American population and significant number (10 percent) of residents living below the poverty line, Ms. Thomas says. She and others want to make the facts known.
At an event to be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on June 1 at the Evanston Ecology Center, the Evanston Health Department and the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force will discuss ongoing efforts to remedy what Ms. Thomas calls the “unacceptable disparity.”
Some speakers will highlight the groundbreaking research of the Task Force since its founding in 2007 on the principle that a woman should have the same access to high-quality care regardless of her race or ethnicity, where she lives, how much money she has or the kind of insurance she has or lacks. Others will put a human face on the statistics by telling their own stories.
Lonnie Barefield is one of a dozen women who planned the event. A former counselor and head of the College and Career Center at Evanston Township High School, her interest is grounded not in medical expertise but in experience with friends and family.
“I am amazed at the cost of taking care of all these things,” she says. When low-income black women have breast cancer and no insurance, she asks, “What do they do?” Ms. Barefield became involved in the June 1 event to raise awareness and encourage people to “fight for change,” she says, adding that even those who cannot donate money “can give time and verbal support [to the cause].”
Ronna Stamm is an Evanston breast cancer survivor who says the experience made her “acutely aware” of her good fortune in having “excellent health insurance and access to world-class medical care.” She says that after having thought “countless times about the scores of women with no or limited coverage and difficult access,” she joined the Task Force “to turn her concern into action.”
She saw the importance of holding an event in Evanston and of gathering a diverse group of women to plan it. Ms. Stamm helped mobilize the City Health Department and the Task Force and recruited other women with an interest in publicizing the issue in Evanston.
The “evening of awareness and advocacy” will center on the work of the Task Force. Speakers include the doctor who conducted and updated the original study, the director of program at the organization and a survivor who benefitted from Task Force funds.
The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task force was formed in March 2007, just months after the Sinai study became public. Comprising more than 100 concerned community leaders, health advocates, researchers and health-care professionals, the Task Force began by asking, “What is going on in Chicago?” says Darlene Oliver, Task Force associate director.
A 2010 follow-up to the Sinai study found the African American mortality rate exceeding the white by 27 percent in New York City and by 41 percent across the nation. Though grim, these statistics throw Chicago’s extreme disparity into even higher relief.
Early on, says Ms. Oliver, discussion at the Task Force focused on genetics. But if genetics were the explanation, she says, African American women in New York would be equally as likely as Chicagoans to die.
New York differs from Chicago in having “far more neighborhood clinics,” she says. Access is a problem in Chicago, where, Ms. Oliver says, only one of the city’s distinguished research institutions is located in or near an area where low-income black women tend to live.
The Task Force is working to improve access to diagnostic (mammograms) and treatment facilities for low-income and uninsured women. But confidential data collected by the Task Force also revealed problems with the quality of detection and treatment of breast cancer at many Chicago hospitals and clinics. The Chicago Breast Cancer Quality Consortium is collaborating with area health-care providers to help them ensure top-quality detection and treatment.
In addition to pushing for improved access and quality, the Task Force advocates for government funding of programs that provide free mammograms. Regardless of Illinois’ fiscal position, Ms. Oliver says, saving lives should be a priority. A March 2010 protest organized by the Task Force helped secure $4.9 million in additional funding for the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, which provides free mammograms and cancer treatment to uninsured women in Illinois.
St. Francis Hospital receives grants from the IBCCP, says Ms. Thomas, ensuring that low-income women in Evanston can get free mammograms. But too often, she says, “Women don’t get there [for the mammograms], and the money [earmarked for mammograms] goes back to the state.”
Presenters on June 1 will deliver messages such as this one: “Women who have been screened regularly have only a 5 percent chance of dying from breast cancer.”
They hope a lot of people will be listening.