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Citing centuries of cultural, economic and social reasons, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital have begun to address a disparity in cancer diagnosis and treatment for women of color in the Milwaukee area. To tackle this very complicated and serious issue they have created a comprehensive, established program that includes a detailed look into the subject and have created a new patient navigator position to help lessen the impact on people of color seeking care in Milwaukee.

The patient navigator position has been filled by Froedtert Hospital, but a hospital spokesman said they would like the person hired to have some time to gain knowledge and understanding of the subject and how it affects women locally before commenting on the matter.

In addition to the new position the hospital also has two general patient navigators who help get all cancer patients through their screenings and if they have abnormal findings help them navigate through the very complicated health care system all the way through diagnosis and treatment.

The bottom line with all of these efforts is trying to address some pretty significant cancer disparities in Milwaukee and beyond.

"We don’t have deep knowledge as to why some of these disparities exist or how underserved patients feel coming into this institution," said Anne Mathias, Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center communications and community engagement programs manager. "We have spent a lot of time over the last 18 to 24 months bringing in community representatives to talk to us about this. We are looking at ways to understand and remove barriers so that more minority patients can undergo the clinical trials and get on the path to treatment."

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective. These studies also may show which medical approaches work best for certain illnesses or groups of people.

Dr. Melinda Stolley, MCWCC associate director of prevention and control, said there are numerous barriers that stand in the way of a patient seeking and receiving proper cancer care. She added that the virtual wall that prohibits women of color from taking proactive steps to address their health include social support, access to care, transportation, social taboos, cultural aspects, economics and religion.

"The disparity starts in the historical context of social injustices in this country," Stolley said. "If you talk to very smart people who have studied this subject, it actually began during slavery. A poor white person still gets treated better then a poor black person. It is just in the last ten years that we have begun to understand this complicated issue."

Valeria Banks, breast cancer survivor and community advocate who is 26 years into breast cancer diagnosis and treatment said her experience has been much different than most because she owned the process from the beginning.

"I have health insurance and I had good jobs and I was also keenly aware of my health condition," Banks said. "Some women have a fear because the relationships that we have had with doctors has not been good for women of color. If I go to a doctor and he is not attending to my needs I will tell him goodbye and find another doctor."

Banks said that women of color feel intimidated by the process of treatment and marginalized by the healthcare institution, so she has championed the ideal of figuring out a way to make it better. She added that some women do not have enough aggressiveness to say what they need to say to a doctor. She said if more women of color were forceful and ready to speak up about their needs and say what they think is right for their own body then this will begin to change.

"If a patient wants this to work, they need to take the time to understand the process and how to talk to doctors," Banks said. "(The patient) need(s) someone to walk with them through the whole path from the time they are diagnosed to what they should do making decisions and through treatment."

Stolley said she wanted to make it clear that information for prospective patients is important, but the health care providers have to back up the information with access, support and resources. She said if you have information and you cannot get access, what good is the information.

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