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The pandemic and civil rights issues are profoundly interwoven with cancer survivorship

By Rebecca Palpant Shimkets, Jun 30, 2020

Today is the final day of National Cancer Survivor Awareness Month, and I have never felt more conflicted about lifting my voice to advocate the issues of millions who are living with the experience of cancer. As a two-time cancer survivor and public health consultant, addressing the mental and physical issues of cancer survivors has been a driving force in my life and something for which I have spoken and written numerous times. (Please see my Learning to Live Log.) This month, the urgent and immediate needs felt by so many impacted by the pandemic are never far from my mind along with Georgia Floyd and the demonstrations and protests in more than 2,000 cities across the U.S.

With all of these striking events sending shock waves through our communities, what could the voice of a middle-age, working, white woman offer about cancer survivorship as we end the month of June?  

It turns out there is a lot to say.

The pandemic and civil rights issues are profoundly interwoven with cancer survivorship. Just ask the 87% of cancer survivors responding to an American Cancer Society survey last month.  They said the pandemic had affected their health care in some way (36% higher than in April).  COVID-19 has one in five survivors experiencing worry about the return of cancer due directly to the delays and interruptions they are experiencing in health care because of the pandemic.

The color of one’s skin remains one of the most powerful determinants of health outcomes.  Access to quality, affordable, and culturally competent care remains elusive for so many people of color and that impacts cancer survival rates. African American men are twice as likely to die of prostate cancer and 2.5 times more likely to die of stomach cancer than their non-Hispanic counterparts. Even though African American women are just as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer as white women, they are 40% more likely to die from it (CDC, 2020). Native Americans and Alaska Natives have much higher rates of many cancers including colorectal, lung, and stomach than non-Hispanic white people in the U.S.

The enormous gains made in the decades-long push toward cancer prevention and screening are under threat as likely 80,000 cancer cases of the five most common cancers have been missed due to the pandemic at this point (Murry & Kleinrock, 2020). This means that when people finally come in for the screening they require, they likely will be in more advanced stages of cancer and that impacts survival.

Cancer screening matters.

It is not unusual to feel helpless during these times, but we know that small steps toward action can make a big difference both at home and within our communities. In this unforgettable time, it is important not to forget the most basic but important things. Safely get the cancer screening required for your age group and family history and encourage those you love to get screened.   

All over this country, clinics are revamping to create safe spaces for screening with hours that make sense for real people. Mail-in screening tests are available for colorectal cancer, and the use of telehealth or virtual tools with providers are becoming mainstream and offer safety and convenience for those unable to leave their homes or in rural areas. 

Support organizations that offer resources and services to those with limited access to affordable, quality health care like Georgia CORE and others that you can find on When you renew your license tag in Georgia, make the conscious choice to purchase the breast cancer license tag, and the funds go toward providing breast cancer education, screening, and treatment to underserved women in Georgia.

June 2020 will go down in history as a flash point for civil rights while overlaying one of the most significant public health crises in a century. While we focus on these important societal challenges, let us not lose sight of immediate steps we can take now for our health and the health of those in the communities that surround us. 

After all, we are in this together.

About the author

Rebecca Palpant-Shimkets is a two-time cancer survivor, public health consultant and member of Georgia CORE's Survivorship Advisory Board. Pictured above, Rebecca was at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention where she was promoting Talk to Someone, the CDC simulation tool for survivors.

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