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Cancer care in Georgia: 20 years of closing the disparities gap, and yet there’s still so much more to do

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By Guest Columnist LYNN DURHAM, Ed.D., President and CEO of Georgia CORE and a three-time cancer survivor.

It’s unlikely that there are many of us who have not been touched by cancer in some way. Cancer is Georgia’s second-leading cause of death even though many of its devastating effects are preventable or controllable – sometimes curable, and always more effectively treated when detected early. Yet, so many of our friends and loved ones here in Georgia have had to travel to other states for the best available treatments. And that’s why Georgia CORE was formed.

Before becoming CEO, Durham was a Georgia CORE board member and volunteer with a 25-year career in administration and management at Georgia Tech.

The Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education, a statewide nonprofit, is approaching its 20th year in advancing cancer care through partnerships and innovation. For nearly two decades, we’ve grown the number of clinical trials, increased research, and promoted education and early detection to improve the care offered right here at home. 

We have focused on increasing the number of cancer clinical trials available here in Georgia because they offer great promise for controlling cancer and its progression. When these studies are conducted, not only do they advance our research in cancer, but they also provide the most current, innovative care available and the best promise of survival to cancer patients.

In addition to research, education and prevention services is the other way to fight this deadly disease. Those of us with means and good healthcare hopefully take advantage of the screenings available. But what about those of us who can’t?

We know that racial disparities are prevalent in all forms of healthcare, and cancer prevention is no different. At a recent summit focused on disparities in cancer clinical trials, Bradley C. Carthon, MD. Ph.D. of Winship Cancer Institute and Chief of Hematology and Oncology at Emory University Hospital in Midtown painted a devastating but real truth about cancer and Black people. He shared several multi-year studies that showed a smaller percentage of Black men had prostate cancer screenings and access to several standard treatments than White men. So, it’s no surprise to learn that Black men have a higher lifetime probability of developing prostate cancer (one out of six versus one out of eight White men), and the chance of dying from it nearly doubles for Black men.

In fact, in looking at seven common types of cancer, the five-year survival rate of White people was greater than that of Black people for every type, both in early and late stages, according to an American Cancer Society study from 2019 that Dr. Carthon shared. 

So, what can we do to address these fatal disparities? For clinical trials at least, Georgia CORE is putting together a discussion summary of the summit with action plans and will share it with participants and other members of the oncology community in hopes of improving access to clinical trials that will save lives. 

For now, raising awareness around prevention and detection is still the best way to address racial disparities in cancer incidences. Since 2003, Georgia has offered a specialty auto license plate for Breast Cancer which funds breast cancer screenings for under-resourced and uninsured women throughout the state. Nearly nine out of every 10 Georgians benefiting from the program are non-white. Georgia CORE and the State Office of Rural Health have jointly administered the program since 2013, and in 2021, worked with members of the Georgia General Assembly to introduce a redesigned plate to increase sales which had declined in recent years. 

That same year, legislation was passed to offer Georgia drivers the option to purchase a “Stop Cancer” plate, the proceeds from which will provide prevention and detection services for the cancers, together with breast cancer, that account for 51 percent of all cancer deaths in Georgia: colorectal, lung, and prostate cancer. These services will also target under-resourced and uninsured Georgians.

Addressing disparities in cancer care since Georgia CORE was created, our work has impacted patients in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the state. In just 2021, we:

  • Provided to racial and ethnic minorities 59 percent of all our genetic screening, testing, and counseling services.
  • Administered awards totaling $150,000 from the Breast Cancer license plate fund to six partner organizations for breast cancer screening, navigation, outreach, education, and treatment to 1,850 under-resourced and uninsured women.
  • Increased the number of minority patients receiving cutting-edge treatments through our partnership with NCI’s Community Oncology Research Program, enrolling 305 patients in clinical trials, 28% of whom were minorities.
  • Created a research seed grant for $100,000 from the Georgia Cancer Research Fund (from tax filers’ donations) and awarded two collaborating Georgia institutions to conduct innovative cancer research.

While there is still so much to do, we can celebrate. Georgia CORE is throwing our first-ever gala on Feb. 18, 2023. “A Toast the Trailblazers” will honor those Georgians who looked beyond what was currently available, imagined something better, and did what it took to save more lives from cancer. Proceeds from the gala will augment the new “Stop Cancer” license plate fund. Join us in this fight, buy a plate, spread the word, and help us save more lives from this devastating disease. 

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to uplift and amplify the diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email Editor Derek Prall to discuss the specifics.


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