On World Cancer Day and During Black History Month: Honoring HeLa

The following blog appeared in The Huffington Post on February 4, 2014.

Development of the polio vaccine, progress in AIDS research and new cancer treatments — these are just a sample of how much we owe to an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. The world learned of her heretofore unacknowledged contributions in one of the most compelling reads of the last few years – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Mrs. Lacks’ cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or permission, and because they replicated almost without end, her “immortal” cells, called HeLa cells (short for Henrietta Lacks) have arguably been one of the most powerful tools in medical research ever since. It’s fitting, during Black History Month and on World Cancer Day, that we acknowledge and honor the contributions of this one African-American woman to medical history.

I think of what cancer patients like Henrietta Lacks endured in the 1950s, when segregation laws meant that African Americans could legally be treated in “colored wards” of hospitals or denied treatment all together. Skloot notes in the book that African Americans often were treated at later stages of their disease. A Johns Hopkins University study in 1966 reported that African-American women with breast cancer in the 1950s had lower survival rates than the national average, and far below those of their white counterparts.

With segregation thankfully a thing of the past, we are still deeply concerned about outcomes for African-American women facing breast cancer today. Although African-American women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, they are still 41 percent more likely to die of it than white women. African-American women also are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage and aggressive breast cancers, and more likely than white women to be diagnosed under the age of 45, according to American Cancer Society statistics (there is extensive information about African Americans and breast cancer on our website).

It is shocking to learn that the city with the highest incidence and mortality rates from breast cancer is our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., just 38 miles south of where Mrs. Lacks died. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for 2006-2010, breast cancer death rates are 40 percent higher than the national average in the National Capital Region, which includes the District, Northern Virginia and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. The area also has one of the highest rates of women diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer — 32 percent above the national average — when the disease is more difficult and expensive to treat, and the prognosis is less certain, according to the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries (NAACR), 2006-2010 data.

The numbers in the region are more alarming for African-American women. Breast cancer incidence in African-American women in the region is 3.6 percent below that of white women, but death rates for these women are 33.8 percent higher than in whites. Late-stage diagnosis is a disturbing 22.6 percent higher in African-American women in the region than in whites, according to NAACR.

We at Komen have been working to change these numbers, in Washington, D.C. and across the country, with an approach that supports research, outreach and services, and a focus on women of color and the economically disadvantaged and underserved. Komen has invested more than $34 million in our 25 years in Washington, D.C., funding programs to reach, educate, screen and provide treatment assistance to these women. We are investing our efforts to reach women of color in the lower-income neighborhoods of Wards 7 and 8 in D.C. and nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland.

In 2012 in the D.C. region alone, we were able to pay for 18,000 screenings, reach 190,000 women with breast health awareness, education and information programs, and assist another 6,000 women with services that helped them get treatment and ensured needed follow-up care.

We’ve also invested in research — $22 million in the D.C. area — that examines the biological and environmental factors that contribute to disparities in breast cancer outcomes in African-American women, and explores new targeted therapies for aggressive cancers they are more likely to face (e.g., triple negative breast cancer).

Our goal is to understand and address the genetics of breast cancer in women of color, end disparities in access to care, treatment and follow-up that often lead to higher death rates in this group. To date, Komen has invested nearly $90 million nationally into disparities research to find answers.

There is progress to report: breast cancer death rates have fallen by 1-2 percent annually between 2006 and 2010 in the D.C. region. Late-stage diagnosis is falling as well, by 3.4 percent during the same period.

But it’s clearly not enough — not when our nation’s capital leads the country in breast cancer incidence and death, and when poorer outcomes for women of color persist across our nation.

Henrietta Lacks — one African-American woman — changed the face of medical science in our country and around the world, unknowingly contributing to improvements in health for millions. We owe it to her, and all women, to ensure that we are investing in better outcomes for all people facing breast cancer, as we continue to search for the cures and prevention.

You can support Komen’s work in the Washington, D.C., area by registering for our 25th Global Race for the Cure on May 10. The Race funds community outreach and research in the region.

About the author

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Judy Salerno has written 13 articles for Susan G. Komen® | Blog

Judith A. Salerno, M.D., M.S., is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Susan G. Komen®, responsible for the day-to-day operation of the organization and for setting Komen’s strategic vision. Dr. Salerno brings extensive experience in research, public health policy and community health to the role. Before joining Komen, she was the Leonard D. Schaeffer Executive Officer of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies, serving as executive director and chief operating officer of the Institute.