Sadly, there are disparities in cancer care for minority groups, not only in the management of cancer, but also with prevention and screening. Only 38% of Hispanic women age 40 and older have annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer.1

Hispanic/Latina, Asian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women are less likely to get regular mammograms if they sense racism in the health care setting, according to a study.1

Barriers to early detection and screening may lead to later diagnosis for these patients, which can result in worse outcomes. However, increasing communication between medical institutions and minority populations through social media may help bridge these existing gaps.

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Related: Disparities in Access to Breast Cancer Care

Navigating the Odyssey of the Medical World

History has demonstrated that minority groups may not seek medical services sooner because of a distrust of the medical system—illustrated in Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot’s book details a family’s struggle to come to terms with the use of their relative’s cells—the now-famous HeLa cells—used for cancer research without permission.

Lacks, who died from cervical cancer, unknowingly donated her cells to Johns Hopkins University in 1951, which led to important discoveries not only in cervical cancer specifically, but also in cell biology, polio, and fertility research.2 Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) added two of Lacks’ family members to a committee to grant them a voice in the approval process of new research as it relates to the HeLa cell lines; this was an unprecedented agreement, as most agreements are between the patient and the research team.

However, in this case, privacy of the family members is considered because “full genomic sequence of HeLa cells would violate its privacy by revealing abnormalities in genes that could be transmitted to later generations,” according to a New York Times editorial regarding this agreement.3 This new agreement presents an opportunity for the medical community to regain the trust of this family and perhaps the African American community at large.

Peer-to-Peer Education Paves the Way to Screening

One way to help minority patients learn about prevention, screening, and early detection of cancer is through peer-to-peer communication. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) developed the Multicultural Media Outreach (MMO) Program to provide evidence-based cancer information to underserved populations through traditional media and social media formats. MMO developed Lifelines®, a cancer education series for African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, American Indian, and Alaska Native audiences in the United States that touches on cancer prevention, treatment, survivorship, clinical trials, and more.4

In addition to videos of physicians speaking to these communities, some of the Lifeline videos include patient interviews, where they address barriers to screening and the implications of not seeking immediate treatment upon learning of a diagnosis of cancer.

“I don’t want to hear that message [you have cancer]. I don’t want to hear what the doctor may tell me,” said Edgar Brookins, a patient who was interviewed in a Lifeline video about African-American men with prostate cancer.5

After beginning treatment for his own cancer, he began to see things differently for himself and for his community. He suggested that members of the church need to be more outspoken about the health of the African-American community, because they can have a real influence on their actions and whether or not individuals seek out treatment.  “Preachers have to say it from the pulpit, why the black man needs to be more aggressive in their medical care,” Brookins added.

Bringing attention to the perspectives of the underserved patient groups may help open the doors to better communication about cancer screening and prevention.  The hope is that highlighting personal stories and struggles will encourage more people to get screened for the disease and seek early treatment when possible, rather than endure the outcomes of a late diagnosis.


1. Examples of Health Disparities. NCI. Accessed November 13 2013.

2. Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. February 2010.

3. Editorial. Another Twist in the Saga of Henrietta Lacks. New York Times. August 10, 2013.

4. Alexander J, Kwon HT, Strecher R, et al. Multicultural Media Outreach: Increasing Cancer Information Coverage in Minority Communities. J Cancer Educ. 2013 Aug 21.

5. NCI Lifeline Videos on YouTube.