10/25/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2012

Undoing D.C. Cancer Disparities

For the past two years, Stephen Jefferson has been on a mission. He talks to D.C. Council staff about his mission. He raises money for his mission. And this week, he taped a YouTube video and gave an interview to local TV station ABC 7 about his life's mission: helping blacks in Washington understand that a cancer diagnosis is more likely to affect their lives than they think. In his words, "I was one of the dumb ones. I want people to know, don't be like me."

Steve doles out his advice with sobering authority. In 2009, he was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, after an emergency hospital visit to seek answers about the swelling of his feet. His story personifies the alarming trend in black-white cancer rate disparities that has persisted for more than a decade in the district.

This week, a RAND Health report, commissioned by the DC Cancer Consortium, quantified those cancer disparities and the gaps are staggering. The study found:

  • Blacks in D.C. are 54 percent more likely than whites to be diagnosed with cancer, but blacks are 90 percent more likely than whites to die from the disease. Nationally, blacks are 4 percent more likely than whites to develop cancer and 21 percent more likely than whites to die from cancer.
  • Blacks in D.C. are twice as likely as whites in D.C. to smoke -- a major health risk for cancer.
  • Blacks in D.C. are almost three times as likely to have missed health care in the last year due to cost.
  • Hispanic cancer rates are not reported because information on cancer in Hispanics is not complete. However, national figures indicate cancer is becoming a leading health concern for Hispanics.

Now that Washington is officially a "poster child" for this national health challenge, the revelation might spur action by all who live here. But reports by themselves don't tend to motivate.

What commands attention are stories of people and their families that we know, through work, school and leisure activities. To amplify the report's findings, the consortium featured Steve and another volunteer, Thelma Jones, on our YouTube channel and shared it with community leaders.

Steve's battle with cancer is now familiar to me, but listening to his recollections of conversations with his son, Stevie Jr., a 9-year-old, during his toughest days with cancer, deepened my compassion for all cancer survivors and my resolve to end racial disparities.

In her video remarks, Thelma talks about being a breast cancer survivor who helps other survivors who don't have the same resources as she. Thelma also became a patient navigator to assist them and learned first-hand about economic barriers to care. She makes calls to help breast cancer patients find money to pay for bus trips for chemotherapy treatments miles from the closest cancer center. Thelma says, in some cases, her clients can't make their appointments because the Metrorail fare is too costly.

The RAND report and our volunteers' stories make clear that we must find better ways to erase the district's persistent cancer disparities and help those struggling with the disease in the same way our nation fought air pollution and environmental waste.

As the organization at the center of this battle in the district, the Consortium recognizes its role to recommend systemic change. We have begun that process by commissioning the report. Based on its findings, we are working toward easing the heavy burden of cancer in the district with these goals:

  • Establish a public-private D.C. Cancer Control Fund to implement the D.C. Cancer Control Plan.
  • Create a cancer treatment center in Southeast Washington, the area with the highest cancer diagnosis and death rates in the city.
  • Improve the current data collection and reporting system to better measure the cancer burden for Hispanics who live in the district.

The Washington area is home to some of the most advanced cancer treatment centers, research institutions and Federal health agencies. The decades-old persistence of cancer disparities and the designation of the district having the worst black-white cancer death rate gap in the nation deserve nothing short of a sea change in budget and policy priorities. Separate and unequal cancer outcomes in the nation's capital are simply unacceptable.

YaVonne Vaughan is executive director of DC Cancer Consortium.