EDITOR’S NOTE: Marvella Ford is a breast cancer survivor and public health professor and researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center, where she oversees the effort to address disparities in cancer treatment in South Carolina.

Health initiatives

Here are some of the efforts that MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is taking to help reduce health disparities in South Carolina:

A statewide cancer education training program done in collaboration with community partners. The program employs a “Train the Trainer” approach in which the trained program participants conduct additional programs with other community members. So far, 315 trained community members have conducted the program with an additional 3,200 other community members.

Research training programs for the “next generation” of cancer disparities researchers. These researchers are undergraduate students from S.C.’s historically black colleges and universities and graduate students and junior faculty at MUSC. The programs have been conducted since 2007 and most of the participants have subsequently enrolled in graduate or professional schools. More than 10 of the students have been included as co-authors on peer-reviewed scientific publications.

A study to evaluate patient navigation as a method to increase rates of surgery among African Americans in the Southeastern U.S. with early stage lung cancer

A study to identify genetic variations associated with triple negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form of breast cancer that disproportionately affects African-American women. Genetic analysis results are forthcoming but preliminary data show high rates of overweight/obesity and low rates of physical activity in this sample of breast cancer survivors, which increases the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

A study identifying factors associated with surveillance care colorectal cancer survivors.

An international Student Research Forum as part of the annual National Conference on Health Disparities.

By David Quick


Q: For those who may not understand the concept of health disparities, can you explain it in a nutshell?

A: The National Institutes of Health defines health disparities as differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality and burden of diseases and other adverse health conditions that exist among specific populations in the United States.

Q: As I understand, you have survived breast cancer twice. How has that affected your approach to research? Do you think those journeys have brought you new insights?

A: I was first diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer in 2008 and was treated with lumpectomy surgery followed by radiation therapy. I was diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer for a second time in April 2013 and underwent a mastectomy immediately followed by breast reconstruction surgery.

I appreciate these experiences because they have helped me to view my research from the perspective of a patient as well as a researcher. Every data point represents a person who is part of a family and a community.

Q: You recently received a grant to study why African-American lung cancer patients have surgery less often for certain diagnoses. Tell me about that grant and study.

A: My colleague, Dr. Nestor Esnaola, and I reviewed data from the S.C. Central Cancer Registry and S.C. Inpatient/Outpatient surgery files from 1996-2002. We discovered that among patients with early stage lung cancer, African Americans were almost 50 percent less likely than European Americans to receive surgery.

We developed, and are testing, a patient navigation intervention to help to overcome barriers to care, to try to close this gap in access to appropriate health care.

Q: What motivated you to choose disparities research? Did personal experiences play into it?

A: I never knew any of my grandparents. They all died before I was born. My mother passed away in 2000 and my father passed away in 2004 after living with me for a year.

My family is not unique. Too many other families have lost generations of family members due to premature death.

My motivation in going to work every day is to try to find solutions to reduce health disparities so that other families will have a chance to enjoy each other’s company for as long as possible.

Q: I’ve heard you talk about the need for individuals to take care of their bodies the same way they take of their cars. Why do you think there is such a disconnection — you know, taking care of your body so it runs better and lasts longer — and is that disconnection apparent any more or less in African-American and Hispanic populations?

A: Given the obesity epidemic that is plaguing most populations in the U.S., this issue does not seem to be unique to any particular population.

What exacerbates health disparities are the inequities in access to health care, high-quality food, housing and health care, educational opportunities that will lead to jobs that can sustain families, and access to environments where physical activity can safely take place.

Q: What is the future for some of the classic disparity issues such as barriers in access to care, disparities in treatment and disparities in outcomes? Are you hoping that gaps will narrow anytime in the near future?

A: Every day represents an opportunity to engage in actions on the individual level, health care provider level, and health care systems level that could help to reduce these disparities.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.