Closing the Racial Gap in Chicago Breast Cancer Mortality Rates

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Breast cancer deaths are higher in the most racially and economically segregated Chicago areas, especially those with the fewest healthcare resources, according to research presented by Northwestern University researcher Julie Yonek. 

Yonek is a research assistant and project director of the Center for Healthcare Equity at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine.

Her study, “A Profile of Health and Health Resources within Chicago’s 77 Community Areas,” underscores the need in Chicago communities, especially on the South and Southwest Sides, for more breast cancer screening resources. 

Julie Yonek's research highlights emphasize the need to close the racial gap in breast cancer mortality rates in Chicago (Lacy Schley/MEDILL)Julie Yonek's research highlights emphasize the need to close the racial gap in breast cancer mortality rates in Chicago (Lacy Schley/MEDILL)

Yonek said the study, representing a year of work, focuses on investigating the availability and capabilities of healthy living resources in Chicago communities. She presented the research this week at a Feinberg luncheon seminar, "State of the Cancer Union: Minority Report." 

“Health care is local and we wanted to understand what can be done at the local level to improve health outcomes,” Yonek said. 

Specifically, the study focused on one of the top five “winnable battles” outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – breast cancer disparities. 

These battles are “winnable” because they are “leading causes of illness, injury, disability or death for which known, effective interventions exist,” like childhood obesity, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and motor vehicle injury and death, Yonek said. 

“I wouldn’t say that it is more ‘winnable’ relative to other battles but there are certainly specific policy and practice-based initiatives that we can address to improve outcomes for women in Chicago,” Yonek said of the racial and economic gap of breast cancer mortality rates. 

More specifically, compared to white women, black women in Chicago were less likely to have mammograms and fewer black women had their mammograms read by radiologists specializing in mammography, according to Yonek's study. 

In fact, according to her team’s results, many women in South Lawndale had to wait for free mammogram screening clinics to come to their neighborhood, since many do not have health insurance. 

Cultural views of healthcare also play a role in this gap. According to Yonek’s results, fear of getting bad news tended to deter the women of Auburn Gresham and Chicago Lawn from getting mammograms.

In order to help close this gap in breast cancer mortality rates, Yonek said that it will take a coordinated effort from communities, healthcare providers and policy makers. 

“We also need more local neighborhood level data to better understand the barriers to getting screening and follow-up care, so we can effectively target interventions for improvement,” Yonek said. 

“Communities and providers that work in these communities need to work together to gather the evidence that shows that they are doing what they can with limited resources,” Yonek said. “At the end of the day, making the case for more resources in a community, for increasing the number of high quality facilities and so on requires data—policy makers need to be presented with this evidence.” 

Yonek encourages these women to become more involved patients. 

“There are challenges to doing this with so many other demands on one's time,” Yonek said. “However women need to be given the educational tools and resources so they can actively engage in ensuring that they get the highest quality of care, which they deserve.”

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