Researchers Partner with Churches to Understand, Address Cancer Disparities among African American Communities

June 23, 2021

Seven hands forming a heart

The KU Cancer Center is working with Faith Works, a consortium of researchers and church leaders, to spread the word about the importance of cancer prevention and screenings among the African American community.

The KU Cancer Center is working with Faith Works, a consortium of researchers and church leaders, to spread the word about the importance of cancer prevention and screenings among the African American community.

African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival rate for most cancers of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. That’s why scientists at The University of Kansas Cancer Center are working hard to overcome these hurdles, and they’re doing it in a unique way.

A consortium called Faith Works Connecting for a Healthy Community brings together researchers, church leaders and congregation members to spread the word about the importance of cancer prevention and screenings.

Crystal Lumpkins, PhD
Crystal Lumpkins, PhD associate professor and
member of KU Cancer Center

Crystal Lumpkins, PhD, associate professor and member of KU Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention and Control research program, leads the Faith Works consortium. She recently discussed the program’s impact, the importance of partnering with community members and why better understanding health disparities is critical to cancer research and prevention.

Q.   What barriers limit African Americans’ access to cancer care and prevention activities such as screenings?

A.    When we talk about barriers to cancer care and prevention, we must talk about the social determinants of health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines these determinants as “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” Such factors or conditions include:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Education
  • Neighborhood and environment
  • Employment
  • Social support networks, as well as access to health care

In African American communities, one such barrier includes a lack of health insurance or under-insurance. When we look at social determinants of health among African Americans and other ethnic groups, it’s even more complex. The consortium has been instrumental in addressing these complexities. For instance, we conducted a qualitative, National Cancer Institute-funded study several years ago with a sample of African American men as it relates to colorectal cancer screening. African Americans are 15% to 20% more likely to die from colorectal cancer than patients of any other race.

We discovered participants were very nervous, even scared, of undergoing a colorectal cancer screening such as a colonoscopy. Those psychosocial perceptions are major barriers to screening. The individuals felt that such an invasive procedure was an affront to their manhood. There was also distrust among medical providers.

Q.   Tell us more about Faith Works Connecting for Healthy Community.

A.    The church is a foundation in the African American community. Leaders of faith-based organizations wield great influence within their communities. Faith Works brings together scientists and community/congregation stakeholders to be equal partners in all steps of the research process, all united by the same goal: to reduce the burden of cancer among African Americans.

The value in this type of approach – which is called community-based participatory research – is that many voices, with many perspectives, are at the table. Scientists are experts in what they do, but our community consortium members are experts in life and the African American experience.

For example, Pastor Jones and First Lady Viola Jones, a breast cancer survivor, of Bethel Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, are actively involved in leading cancer support groups and discussing difficult issues, such as intimacy after cancer surgery and treatment.

Evelyn Cooper, RN, B.S., who is also involved in Faith Works and is a KU Cancer Center Community Advisory Board member, does outreach with the Palestine Missionary Baptist Church of Jesus Christ Nurses Ministry in Kansas City, Missouri.  A team of nurses has provided the congregation and community with cancer and other health education.

Faith Works has revealed the value of faith-based organizations as a place to approach and talk about the barriers African Americans face. We’ve grown so much since our first colorectal cancer screening study several years ago. The consortium comprises more than a dozen churches and faith-based organizations and serves as the foundation for dozens of community-based participatory research efforts, publications and grants addressing a variety of diseases.

Q.   What is your favorite Faith Works story or memory?

A.    I have so many favorite stories! One that immediately comes to mind is an individual whose church was involved in the colorectal cancer study I mentioned. She told me that she’d heard about colorectal cancer screening and colorectal cancer, but she hadn’t taken any preventative steps. After learning more from Faith Works through her church, she underwent a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

She came to me and said that because of the project, the cancer was detected earlier. She is a testament to what we do. It drives me to do more. If we can touch one life, how many more people can we touch?