Kimlin Tam Ashing, Ph.D.: Addressing the Unique Challenges of Minority Cancer Patients

February 12, 2018 | by City of Hope

Cancer continues to have a widespread impact on our families, friends and communities. Despite sustained advancements in prevention, detection and treatment, the National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 1.7 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.
The challenges for minority cancer patients are even greater. In concert with the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, City of Hope is joining forces with community partners to raise awareness and reduce cancer inequities.
Kimlin Tam Ashing, Ph.D., founding director of the Center of Community Alliance for Research & Education (CCARE) and professor in the Division of Health Equities, specializes in research and community partnerships for improving and expanding medical care for underserved communities.
We took some time during Black History Month to speak with Ashing, who shared her insights on health disparities among minority populations and how best to overcome barriers to better care.
1. Studies show that minority groups in the U.S. still bear a greater cancer burden than whites. What are the key factors behind this?
The greater cancer burden for ethnic minorities is not an isolated health disparity. Unfortunately, we suffer from a greater overall disease burden. African-Americans and Native American/Alaskan Natives (NA/ANs) have the highest cancer incidence and death, Latinos have the highest incidence of childhood cancers and cancers due to infectious and/or environment impact, and Asian-Americans have the lowest cancer screening rates. Ethnic minorities, in particular NA/ANs, Asians and Pacific Islanders and immigrant populations, are least likely to be included in cancer studies despite their increasing representation among cancer patients and survivors.
A lack of research on how to reach our most medically vulnerable about prevention is one of the key factors contributing to these disparities. The scientific community must join forces with our most at-risk communities so that our scientific advances bear the most fruit for the greatest good.
Additionally, we need more policies and infrastructure to promote healthy communities, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Communities of color and other disenfranchised groups have long felt and known that place matters. Residential-spatial segregation matters. In the scientific world, we are now seeing increasing evidence that that's true. For these economically challenged communities, improving access to affordable and timely preventive, screening, diagnostic and therapeutic care would make a huge difference.
2. What kind of progress should people expect in the next five to 10 years?
In less than 10 years, our society will be 50 percent ethnic minority. I believe we will experience a prioritization of scientific, clinical and policy agendas focusing on cancer prevention and control to address the needs of our increasingly diverse population in order to maintain a healthy, productive and viable society. We must strengthen communitywide health-improvement efforts that integrate medical, social and behavioral health strategies and intervention.
I hope that within 2018, we will see medical professionals routinely advocating for an increase in plant-based foods, exercise and nonsugary, nonalcoholic beverages.  
3. What is the main thing people don’t know about this topic?
That we can take action to protect ourselves and our families against cancer and other chronic diseases. With community infrastructure and resources — and family support — we can eat, move and live in ways that effectively reduce cancer and promote health and well-being. Eating plant-based foods is our best defense — at every meal we should fill three-fourths of our plate with a colorful variety of on-sale/reduced-price fruits and vegetables.
Exercise is our cancer-fighting friend. The American Cancer Society recommends 30 minutes a day for adults and one hour a day for children. We can have great family fun and beneficial body movement by having family dance nights two to three times per week.
Cancer is highly treatable and even curable in the early stages, so making sure we take advantage of regular screening is essential. Early detection saves lives!
4. Take action and be positive
Our studies show that fear is a factor in preventing people from engaging in cancer screening and prevention practices. So take action and be a good friend! Share information with your family and friends about cancer prevention. HPV vaccinations (which prevent cervical and other cancers), colonoscopies, PAP tests and mammography are all critically important to a healthy lifestyle.
5. What is your take-home message about cancer disparities within minority populations?
Caring clinicians supported by responsive health policy and political leaders are urgent and necessary. As well, community advocacy and engagement are key to addressing our persistent cancer inequities. An activated community can change funding, research, and clinical and policy priorities and practices to be more responsive to ethnic minority populations.

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