31 Days of Impact – Day 14, Dr. Sarah Gehlert

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SARAH GEHLERT, MD,  ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI – E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the Brown School of Social Work, Washington University

“Our mission is to identify and reach out to women who never went to treatment, women who began treatment but for some reason did not complete it, and women who finished treatment, to ensure they continue to receive follow-up care and support.”

“Although African American women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, they are 37% more likely to die from it.”

“To reduce these disparities, we can’t just develop better chemotherapy. We have to go into the community and make a measureable impact.”

When I began my career as a professor of racial and ethnic diversity, I was stunned and embarrassed by the health disparity that existed for low-income women, particularly in the United States. I was convinced that the inequalities could not be completely attributed to the women’s resistance to receiving care – we needed to take a look at our health care providers and ensure that they themselves knew how to educate women to navigate this complicated system and obtain the right resources.

My research is particularly interested in understanding the influences of neighborhood and community violence and unsafe housing on psychosocial functioning among African American women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, with an eye toward how these factors “get under the skin” to affect gene expression and tumorigenesis. Our findings have shown the impact social influences can have on health, especially the health of vulnerable populations.

Although nationwide, white women are more likely to get breast cancer, black women are about 37% more likely to die of the disease – in St. Louis that number is closer to 60%.  My research allows me to translate transdisciplinary science into practical ideas that can be used to formulate a solid plan of action to end health disparities in this community and in the country as a whole. I admire organizations such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, because they turn these practical ideas into reality and instigate actual change.

In 2011, my team at Siteman’s Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD) and I set out to understand why low-income women in north St. Louis aren’t getting the treatment they need – and then do something about it. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Vulnerable Community Project Grant made this all possible – it allowed us to collaborate with four of PECaD’s partners, including a hospital, a federally qualified health center and two local organizations to use a community-based participatory research approach to improve breast cancer services among women in the region.

With our funding secured, our project was underway and we were able to present our findings at town hall meetings with open microphones for community feedback, and then with our partners, try to turn our findings into improvements in the system, so that we could reduce the excess deaths among black women in St. Louis. Our tactics include one-on-one interviews with breast cancer patients to try to understand the barriers women encounter and help the institutions adapt their practices to better serve them.

Our mission is to identify and reach out to women who never went to treatment, women who began treatment but for some reason did not complete it, and women who finished treatment, to ensure they continue to receive follow-up care and support.  To reduce these disparities that are so apparent in our nation, we can’t just develop better chemotherapy. We have to go into the community and make a measureable impact.

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About the author

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Susan G. Komen has written 289 articles for Susan G. Komen® | Blog

Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Komen is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure®, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.