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Becky Majodoch discusses National Minority Cancer Awareness Week.

National Minority Cancer Awareness Week is April 19-25. Becky Majodoch, the American Cancer Society's (ACS) Health Initiative director in Louisiana, tells us why the week was established and what the ACS hopes to achieve. For more information about the ACS and its programs, call (800) 227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.

Q: What is the main focus of National Minority Cancer Awareness Week?

A: The focus of National Minority Cancer Awareness Week is to let everyone know that cancer affects everyone, but minorities are affected at a greater level because they see a lot higher death rates. If you can improve people's access to screening and care, you can improve the disparities we see in cancer deaths.

Q: What minority groups are most impacted by cancer and what types of cancer?

A: African Americans (are affected) the most when it comes to disparities in death rates. In almost every type of cancer, African Americans have a worse death rate than whites, and most of that is due to late diagnosis. We also see high death rates from cervical cancer in Vietnamese and Hispanic communities, and lung cancer rates in Vietnamese communities, because smoking rates are higher. With cervical cancer, a lot of people don't realize cervical cancer can be prevented. If women go in for regular Pap tests, it could be found and removed, which would be a prevention. Also, women could get the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, (because HPV) can lead to cervical cancer.

Q: Is the disparity in cancer rates because of a genetic predisposition or a lack of health care and screenings?

A: Usually when you see a disparity like that, it is because people are not getting screened as frequently as they should or not getting treated, because there are social taboos tied to some of it as well. With cervical cancer, (some people are afraid it could lead to infertility) and some women want to have children. Culturally, it's hard for me to say what social taboos are in different cultures, but I hear about social taboos all the time: men and prostate cancer in the African-American community because it can lead to infertility.

Q: Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2009-2010, published by the American Cancer Society, states that death rates from cancer continue to drop among blacks, but African Americans are being diagnosed at later stages and have poorer survival rates at each stage compared to whites. What is the reason?

A: That is something that still needs to be studied. We are making a huge effort to look at access-to-care issues and the quality of care they receive once they're in the clinic. There is a 98 percent five-year survival rate among women diagnosed in Stage 1 breast cancer. You do see a lot more genetic breast cancers among young African-American women. It's important to know your family history. If you have a family history of breast cancer at a young age, it is important to get screened early and regularly. It can happen among whites and other ethnic groups if they have a family history of breast cancer at a young age. Finding the cancer early can make such a big difference in what the treatment does to a person's body.

Q: Your awareness week activities center around the COFFEE (Circle of Friends for Education and Early Detection) Program, which reaches out to women in African-American, Hispanic and Vietnamese communities. Explain that program.

A: It's a brand new program. The American Cancer Society heard about it because the University of Alabama-Birmingham did it. We wanted to bring it back to our community and replicate it. It's lay health education. Women in the community are telling their peers about screening for breast and cervical cancer. There are women helping in the community by talking to women about completing their treatment. There are barriers to care: Some people have issues, such as transportation and child care, and we are teaching women in the community to be a resource so women can go to treatment. With the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery Program, a volunteer driver would drive them to their treatment for free. Another great part about the COFFEE program is it's not just an ACS program. We work with (community partners like churches and community groups). We're concentrating our efforts on three communities within New Orleans (Village de l'Est in eastern New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward and Central City), and train these people to find what wouldn't be in a regular resource guide, like a babysitter or doing grocery shopping, so if someone has cervical cancer they will have someone who can help them complete their treatment and have healthy, productive lives. All the COFFEE mates (volunteers) will be trained on April 18, and hopefully we will be able to match them with people during National Minority Cancer Awareness Week.

  Another activity we're planning — the New Orleans Cancer and Tobacco Control Coalition is holding a community forum (at the Panda King, 925 Behrman Hwy. Suite 1, Gretna, at 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thu., April 23) because the state is updating its cancer control plan. People can bring their input for activities they would like to see. We want everyone at the table; it takes a plan of the people, not just a plan of the public health community. Besides getting people to quit smoking, if we could eliminate cancer disparities, we would be closer to eliminating cancer altogether.

Q: Do you see the next generation of minority children being more aware of the dangers of cancer and the value of diagnostic testing?

A: I do. Especially since we're doing such a big awareness push at this time. Hopefully, it will have an impact at getting people screened earlier and doing away with some of those taboos.

Q: Are there places uninsured and underinsured people can go to get these screenings for free or at a very low cost?

A: A great service available for breast and cervical screening is the Louisiana Breast and Cervical Health Program. On their Web site (www.labchp.lsuhsc.edu), people can find locations in their area for breast and cervical cancer screening. It's for women who are 250 percent of poverty level or below. If women have symptoms, there is no income level requirement. They're trying to get as many women who are 50 and older screened as possible. If a woman is diagnosed with cancer and has gone through the program, they get fast-tracked into Medicaid and won't have to worry about how to pay for the treatment.

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