UI Cancer Center works to reach local communities through grant
May 3, 2019

Robert Winn, MD, UI Cancer Center director, is working to improve conditions for cancer survivors and increase outreach to underserved communities.

By Jane Lawicki

Through a $1.5 million grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and collaboration with suburban Wellness House, residents on Chicago’s West and South Sides now can benefit from no-cost cancer screening and survivorship programs through the University of Illinois Cancer Center. 

The center’s community-based programs will reach traditionally underserved and at-risk communities to promote cancer awareness, screening, and after diagnosis care and support.

“By 2027, it’s estimated that more people will be living with cancer than dying from it,” said Robert Winn, MD, UI Cancer Center director and associate vice chancellor for the university’s community-based practice. “Survivorship needs to be more than an academic concept.”

Winn noted, however, that if someone has to travel—take three buses and a train, for example—to obtain health care, that person is less likely to be screened or participate in after diagnosis care. “We need to be proactive, to get out to the communities,” he said.

Intended to bridge what happens in the scientific lab with what people experience in real life, outreach efforts will rely on community navigators to reach more than 600 people living in high-need areas and work directly in those communities to help remove barriers to obtaining an early diagnosis, a key factor in long-term and lifetime cancer survival. 

Gary Puckett, program manager for the North Lawndale Adult Transition Center, 2839 W. Fillmore St., is one such navigator, concerned not only for his own health but the health of those he helps. He recently brought seven residents from the 200-person facility he manages to a free head, neck, and oral cancer screening at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Mile Square Health Center, 1220 S. Wood St.   

“This screening is a godsend for us,” said Puckett, noting the process took only five to ten minutes and everyone was welcoming. “I’ve been impressed by Mile Square and UIC. We can introduce people here to resources they may not be aware of otherwise.” 

Free programs

As part of cancer survivorship outreach, Wellness House will offer more than 40 free programs each month at Mile Square Health Center and the Cancer Care Outpatient Care Center, 1801 W. Taylor Street. Programs include Exercise for Staying Well; Cooking for Wellness; Tai Chi Fundamentals; Expressive Arts; and networking groups for men, women, and young adults. 

The clinics not only will help local residents and reduce cancer disparities in vulnerable populations but will educate researchers on how to best treat cancer patients. By gathering data from underrepresented communities, researchers will be better informed so they can help shape better clinical practices and improve cancer screening, screening processes, and medical approaches.

Photo by Sam Hostettler
Moriyike Akinosun, a fourth year medical student at UIC, examines Petra Garcia on April 10 at UI Health Mile Square Health Center.

“In the 21st century, we’re bringing together technology, miracle drugs, miracle therapies, and big data,” Winn explained. “But big data will not be helpful if certain communities are invisible. Being in the community, being part of the community, will help us to position ourselves to have better data, improve our data science. It’s not just about new discoveries—new drugs or technologies or community engagement—it’s both.”

The UI Cancer Center will use the three-year Bristol-Myers Squibb grant to develop population-specific cervical and colorectal cancer prevention and screening programs at community hospitals or health centers in the Austin, Humboldt Park, and South Shore neighborhoods. Community conversations and data have shown high incidence of these cancer types with low access and awareness of screening programs in these areas. By supporting participation in preventive cancer care, however, cancer outcomes and survivorship rates can improve.

“With our programs, we are focused on helping keep our community healthy and out of the hospital,” Winn said. “We want all people, regardless of ZIP code or skin color, to have their best chance for a long and healthy life.”

As part of community outreach to underserved communities, the Cancer Center will host free smoking cessation sessions every Tuesday from May 7 through June 18 at Avalon Park, 1215 E. 83rd St., 6 to 8 p.m. To register, call Barbara Williams at (312) 996-0055.

At the Mile Square facility at 1220 S. Wood St., the Cancer Center hosts breast cancer screenings. To schedule a mammogram, Call Paola Torres at (312) 413-0119.

For more about the Cancer Center, call (312) 355-1625 or log on to https://cancer.uillinois.edu. The Cancer Center is part of the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System (UI Health).