Cancer vs. The Poor: Long Battles Up Ahead

“Cancer preys on the poor.”

It’s story we know all too well. A 60-year old woman making minimum wage goes decades before being pushed to do a mammogram due to discomfort. Diagnosis? Breast cancer. A 55-year old man is forced into a colonoscopy only after passing blood. Findings? A cancerous tumor.

“We really can alter survival from the disease with early detection,” says Andrew Salner, director of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute in Connecticut, one of several New England states that fared well. “We can bring down mortality … if we can provide equal access to care.”

So despite the availability and development of impressive cancer screenings over the last decade, one story remains the same - poor, minority and rural residents still face alarming barriers to screening and other types of care.

Even though the Affordable Care Act has delivered insurance coverage to millions of citizens, it has not solved the mountain of problems that are impeding access to care. This includes transportation difficulties, lack of education, the inability to take time off from low-wage jobs for medical appointments and shortages of doctors, hospitals and cancer-screening facilities.

“Every state and locality has different resources available … Rural and frontier states have always been a challenge,” says Lisa Richardson, director of the division of cancer prevention and control in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helps fund state cancer control programs. “States that look better tend to have a better health insurance system, a health care system that functions better, and more coordination.”

Connecticut, Vermont, Hawaii and Rhode Island are among this group of states which have high screening rates and low poverty levels. But how do we tackle the issue plaguing challenged states?

By truly understanding their unique issues, thinking of creative solutions, mustering political will and pushing for the most effective and customized approaches could work. “A small group of people who are committed to work on disparity issues can really get it done,” Salner says. “If you look at the data, you can actually mount a cancer control program that makes a difference for people.”

As an employer, friend or just general citizen of the U.S., it’s important to be aware that although our country produces groundbreaking research and new treatments, disparities that are allowed to prevail will ensure that it will only go so far towards defeating cancer.

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