Black History Month provides an occasion to reflect on Black History in cancer medicine, both with respect to the state of cancer care for Black Americans, and the achievements and struggles of Black cancer physicians, scientists, and health care workers. An increased research focus on health disparities has documented the degree to which African American patients suffer from higher death rates and shorter survival for many common cancers. While the causes of these disparities are multiple, including under-representation in clinical trials, the most important drivers are centered in inequitable healthcare—through lesser access, biased care, and a lack of trust, which are manifestations of systemic racism. Interventions to improve access and to provide culturally sensitive outreach to patients and our communities can reduce disparities.
The field of oncology has always benefited from the contributions of Black physicians. Perhaps most famously, Jane Wright, MD, was one of the founders of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). At a time when there were only a few hundred Black women physicians in the United States, she had a remarkable career in cancer medicine. In 1955, Dr. Wright became an Associate Professor of Surgical Research at New York University and Director of Cancer Chemotherapy Research at New York University Medical Center. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Subsequently, she was named Professor of Surgery, Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and Associate Dean at New York Medical College, her alma mater. She was also the first woman President of the New York Cancer Society.
Today, 58 years following from the founding of ASCO, only 3% of American oncologists are Black. To put this in perspective, 13.4% of the population is Black, and as noted, they bear a disproportionate burden of cancer death. Currently, about 6% of medical students and 6% of internal medicine residents are Black, and 3.9% of current oncology fellows are Black.
Our commitment at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital is to support the recruitment, mentorship and success of Black trainees and cancer researchers and physicians, to bend the arc of cancer history in the Black community.