Environmental factor – December 2018: Anacostia community forum focuses on breast cancer
For the latest in a series of community forums, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, traveled to southeast Washington, DC for the Anacostia Community Forum. The forum series, now in its twentieth year, has allowed NIEHS directors to meet with community members across the country so they can listen to concerns firsthand.
Ahead of the November 8 event at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School, Birnbaum shared a meal at the local Cheers at the Big Chair hangout with event planners, scientists and community members.
“I know how important it is to listen to what people in the community are saying,” Birnbaum said in her opening remarks. “Some of our best research is the result of strong community participation in the process.”
“The dinner before was a highlight,” said John Schelp, NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity. “The principal had the opportunity to break bread with community members, to engage and to have a sense of community before heading to the school forum.”
A breast cancer hotspot
Anacostia is a predominantly black historic district located across the river from Capitol Hill. Once plagued by a reputation for extreme poverty, the region is changing rapidly. As a result, residents are shifting their focus from violent crime to other more insidious dangers to their health and well-being.
“You’re in wards 7 and 8, which has some of the highest rates of breast cancer in the city,” said moderator Brenda Lee Richardson, health advocate and resident of Ward 8. Anacostia leads the city in that dubious distinction, and Washington, DC leads the country in breast cancer incidence rate and breast cancer death rate. The organizers therefore chose Anacostia as the place to discuss the links between the environment and disease.
No easy answers
Most researchers agree that breast cancer results from the complex interplay between a person’s unique genetic makeup and the environment around them.
“Environmental factors – such as what is in the food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breathe – are more easily identified and changed than genetic factors, and therefore present a tremendous opportunity. to prevent breast cancer and other diseases, ”said Birnbaum. .
Dozens of community members attended the public forum, hosted by the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Birnbaum and Richardson were joined by five other panelists.
- LaQuandra Nesbitt, MD, director of the DC Department of Health.
- Marc Lippman, MD, professor of oncology and medicine at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
- Celia Byrne, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine and biostatistics at the University of Uniform Services Health Sciences.
- Lucile Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., professor of oncology at the Capital Breast Care Center at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
- Nathalie Williams, founder of the Natalie Williams Breast Cancer Foundation.
Separate but not equal
One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Although black women and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same rate, black women are more likely to die from the disease than white women.
Researchers are busy trying to distinguish the environmental exposures that might underlie these health disparities. “Stress, diabetes, obesity, fear, depression are all linked to cancer,” panelist Lippman said.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, panelist Williams founded the Natalie Williams Breast Cancer Foundation to help other women like her.
“I’m not a scientist, I just know my story,” she said. “I happen to be a breast cancer survivor. Williams told the audience she hoped they could all work together to try to understand and prevent breast cancer in the community.
As with other NIEHS community forums, most of the 90-minute meeting was reserved for the public to voice concerns and ask questions on a wide variety of breast cancer-related topics. Ultimately, the event was as much about building community as it was about providing answers. “I am so honored to be in the room with all of you,” said Richardson in his closing remarks. “It was like a healing process.”
(Marla Broadfoot, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)