On Wednesday, first lady Jill Biden took her first public trip outside Washington, visiting VCU Health’s Massey Cancer Center and speaking about the need for bringing cancer research and treatment to the people.
The center and its director, Dr. Robert Winn, have made it a priority to fix health disparities and connect with the community, especially its poorest members.
Biden toured Massey’s labs, met its researchers, and spoke to a panel of doctors and others who started a weekly COVID-19 and cancer discussion group.
“This group reminds us you don’t have to have a medical degree to help out,” Biden said. “You just have to reach out to the people who are hurting… That’s why I’m here. To listen and to learn from you.”
Biden, who has a doctorate in education, spoke to an audience that included Gov. Ralph Northam and VCU President Michael Rao. In a prior trip, she visited the National Cancer Institute in Washington, where she first heard about Massey.
Cancer is a personal issue to Biden. Her stepson Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. Almost 30 years ago, she witnessed four friends face cancer diagnoses in one year, and one died. Biden helped start the Biden Breast Health Initiative, providing education on the importance of early detection of breast cancer.
But there’s often a divide between cancer clinics conducting research and the communities surrounding them. Too often, Winn said, cancer centers won’t treat the poorest members of their own communities. Winn, who was named Massey’s director in 2019, has focused on bridging that gap.
Last spring, he started giving weekly COVID-19 updates to the state’s Black faith leaders. He would explain the infection rate and provide updates on vaccine arrival. The conversation became known as Facts and Faith Fridays.
It started when local lawyer Rudene Mercer Haynes introduced Winn to F. Todd Gray, the pastor of Fifth Street Baptist Church in North Richmond, which Haynes used to attend. Haynes and Gray spoke at Wednesday’s panel.
There’s a level of apprehension talking about cancer, Haynes said. It makes people hesitant to get screened or seek high-quality care. Last spring, when COVID-19 was still new, disinformation was swirling, she said. If Winn could inform Black pastors, pastors could inform their parishes, she figured.
Churches across the country have played a key role in battling the pandemic, Biden said.
“All over this country, what I have found is the churches are really bringing the communities together and providing, whether it’s education, whether it’s food, whether it’s vaccinations,” Biden said. “So I think communities of color, they trust you, and now I think it’s important that they learn to trust the federal government again, because we want to partner with you.”
There is a history of distrust toward medicine from Black communities. In one notorious example, researchers in the Tuskegee experiment falsely told Black men they were being treated for syphilis.
No matter how great medicine is, Winn said Wednesday, if people don’t trust their doctor enough to take it, the medicine won’t help.
Massey’s push to bring its research to the people started before Winn arrived, he said. It’s part of what drew him to Richmond. Massey is one of 71 nationally designated cancer centers in the United States, and it intends to apply for comprehensive status, the highest level, next year.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color. Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the hospitalization rate of Black and Latino people was nearly five times greater than white people.
There are disparities in cancer, too. In the 65 localities Massey treats, the rate of cancer incidence is higher for the Black community compared to the national average.
“We’ve got to get trials out to people,” Biden said. “With your faith and facts program, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to get it across the nation.”