Cancer in the community: Understanding and addressing cultural forces

by Chris Boerner, President and Head of U.S. Commercial

Over the past four decades, we have seen an unprecedented increase in cancer care innovation.

While only half of diagnosed cancer patients survived beyond five years in the 1970s, more than two-thirds do today. As a result, there are now a record 14 million cancer survivors in the United States. 

But this figure doesn’t begin to reveal disparities among regions. For example, cancer incidence and mortality rates in Kentucky — known as the nation’s “cancer capital” — are 15 to 17 percent higher than in the rest of the nation across all tumor types and 50 percent higher for lung cancer. And taken together, these figures don’t begin to explain how improving care for cancer patients — from initial diagnosis to treatment to the ultimate goal of survivorship — begins with bringing together cancer communities across the country to address the roadblocks facing patients, caregivers, oncologists, healthcare providers and advocates in building solutions. 

Chris Boerner, President and Head of U.S. Commercial

Chris Boerner, President and Head of U.S. Commercial

A ‘perfect storm’ of problems

So, while scientific advances such as immuno-oncology research may greatly improve cancer care broadly, making progress in areas such as Kentucky also requires an understanding of cultural forces that factor into how we promote preventive measures and treatment. In fact, it demands that we see and discuss the issues on the ground, face-to-face, which is what we did recently in Kentucky’s capital, Louisville.

Each community faces its own set of challenges when it comes to cancer and cancer care. Kentucky, unfortunately, faces a “perfect storm” of problems contributing to its high rates of cancer, including the elevated smoking rates often seen in states with historic ties to tobacco, political inaction on pivotal fronts and poverty. The most important lesson we learned in Louisville – and we learned this from those who live and work in the community – is that addressing these and other community-specific problems requires prevention and treatment programs that ‘speak the language’ of the community and that are attuned to the cultural nuances that have long dictated how community members approach problems.

Yet, rather than focusing on a singular program, we need to create an environment in which patients can trust the healthcare providers in their communities and the resources offered to make the greatest progress possible in areas especially hard hit by cancer, such as Kentucky. As a company whose goal is to tackle areas of unmet medical need, it’s up to us to find and work with community organizations that can help bridge the cultural gaps that today impede greater progress. 

Learning from communities

Education is central to our strategy, but we recognize that learning is a two-way street. Our goal to open the dialogue on cancer care is not only to circulate potentially life-saving information but also so we, too, can learn from local communities. Armed with insights from those on the front lines, we can develop better tactics and make greater progress where it’s needed most.

In its most basic sense, cancer on a community level reflects multiple contributing factors that often are woven into the cultural fibers of the place and its people. This is why we met in Louisville with community cancer leaders: to better understand the challenges specific to the community and how we might be able to help.

What we came away with was a clearer understanding of the issues and, yes, how we can help. But as importantly, we learned that those working in communities in Kentucky and, no doubt, other places where cancer is especially prevalent, can help us as well. We learned that meeting face-to-face in these communities with these local experts is critical to us finding still more and better ways to ensure that cancer care innovations are available to still more people across the U.S., and around the world, and that we can further add to the record level of cancer survivorship. And in the process, we were reminded that cancer-care advances don’t occur in the lab alone. They happen in the communities where patients live.

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