Tackling Low Cancer Screening Rates in Our Community, Novartis and The American Cancer Society Join Forces

Metastatic breast cancer thriver Jamil Rivers with her husband and their children (not pictured, Rivers' 20-year-old stepson, Tre). Image: courtesy of Jamil Rivers

In too many ways, the coronavirus health crisis disrupted life as we know it. We saw the gaps in health care more starkly than ever before, shuddering in unison at reports of people who couldn’t access essential medical treatment, and grappling with the weight of loss, death, isolation, and uncertainty. In moments of reflection, we remember how fragile life can be and the importance of protecting our health, our family, and those around us. 

With the pandemic further highlighting—and exacerbating—the gaps that were already there, it’s essential to look at all the ways we can combat challenges to our health. This is why Novartis is stepping up to support the American Cancer Society (ACS) “Get Screened” campaign, which encourages Americans to make cancer screening a regular part of their health routine.  

Regular cancer screening has always been an essential health topic, and a year of delayed check-ups and doctors’ visits due to the pandemic has only increased the urgency to improve screening rates. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that screening rates declined by 87% for breast and 84% for cervical cancers in 2020, while the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) published a study showing that screening rates decreased by 75% for lung, 74% for colon, and 56% for prostate cancers. Extended delays in cancer screening can lead to a later diagnosis and even a decreased chance of successful treatment. 

The ripple effect of missed or unscheduled cancer screenings creates a devastating conundrum for people that already face drastic disparities in healthcare and face increased obstacles to quality cancer care. Economic obstacles, lack of insurance, as well as fear and procrastination are amongst the hurdles that set the stage for this disparity. While screening numbers have gradually begun to recover since 2020, Black and Latinx communities continue to lag behind their white counterparts in regard to cancer screening rates. 

For Reshema Kemps-Polanco, Executive Vice President and US Head at Novartis Oncology, the opportunity to tackle disparities in cancer screening and access to care resonates with her personally. Her experience supporting her best friend of 27 years, Dinisa, through breast cancer until she passed away in 2020, inspires how she leads US Oncology at Novartis.

“It is vitally important to talk about the barriers to cancer screening that often affect the Black community,” says Kemps-Polanco. “But we also need action, which is why, at Novartis, we’re aiming to tackle cancer holistically—pursuing cures through bold science, and tackling other pressing issues in cancer care through partnerships with the oncology community. As part of these efforts, we are proud to support ACS’s “Get Screened” campaign to increase cancer screening rates, particularly among communities that too often face barriers to care.”

The goals for the “Get Screened” program include improving screening rates for breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancers and ensuring everyone has access to recommended screenings, especially those facing screening disparities due to social or economic barriers.

For Novartis—a leader in oncology care working across therapies for breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, melanoma and hematology—teaming up with ACS as a sponsor of the “Get Screened” campaign was an important part of their larger commitment to expand access to care and support solutions for greater health equity. This commitment includes collaborating with historically Black colleges, universities and medical schools to co-create programs that address the root causes of systemic disparities in health outcomes, and driving the “More Than Just Words” multi-year effort to foster solutions and raise awareness surrounding health equity in breast cancer care. ACS is also supporting HBCU medical schools to launch and sustain more than 100 cancer research careers by 2025.

On November 18, Novartis and ACS joined EBONY to hold a Community Connect virtual town hall [link] on the importance of cancer screening, featuring Kemps-Polanco, Dr. Robert Winn, Director of VCU Massey Cancer Center and ACS board member, and breast cancer survivor Cheryl Dotson and metastatic breast cancer thriver Jamil Rivers (pictured above with her family).

For Jamil Rivers, a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis shook her world. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2018 at age 39, after going to the doctor with what she thought was a prolonged cold. At the time she didn’t have any obvious symptoms. A mother of two small children and the wife of a husband who had recently finished treatment for colon cancer, Rivers turned to ACS for support and guidance. 

“When I was first diagnosed, I automatically thought of my family,” shares Rivers. “I was feeling devastated and scared that my young children would lose their mother.” Rivers was blessed to find a doctor whom she trusted and who helped her navigate this difficult ordeal. “My doctor shared her insights on what she thought the best strategy would be in my cancer care and we were able to ‘thought partner’ together,” explains Rivers.

Today, Rivers advocates for others to play an active role in their health, which includes getting regular screenings to help find and treat pre-cancers and cancers early. In addition to her involvement in the “Get Screened” campaign, Rivers is an advisor for the “More Than Just Words” campaign from Novartis. 

Cheryl Dotson’s experience also reinforces the urgency of getting screened. For Dotson, a routine screening at her gynecologist’s office proved vital, since she did not have any symptoms. 

“I did not feel any lump or anything like that. My gynecologist didn’t feel any lump. It was detected through the mammogram,” she explains. “I know in my heart that early detection saved my life,” Dotson goes on. “My oncologist was saying that had it been a little longer, it would not have been the same result because the cancer that I did have was an aggressive cancer.”

For Kemps-Polanco, these stories remind her of Dinisa. “For her, everything always started with the same simple question: ‘What’s the plan?’ And planning for regular cancer screening—planning for your long-term health—is essential.”

Remember: Getting cancer screening tests should be regular life occurrences. Early detection could even be a determining factor in your saving your life. 

To learn more, visit cancer.org/get-screened

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