About 20 volunteers pose with a ChicagoCHEC sign.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC) disseminated findings from three of its eight funded pilot research projects that focus on addressing barriers to cancer prevention, treatment and survivorship prevalent among Chicago’s underserved communities during its third annual community forum on Friday, Sept. 21, at Chicago’s Kennedy-King College. Nearly 200 participants, including Chicago-area minority high school students and faculty, attended the forum, titled Healing Together: From Surviving to Thriving.

Led by researchers from Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University (NU), and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), ChicagoCHEC is a groundbreaking collaborative that fosters meaningful cancer research, education, training and outreach within the city’s underserved communities. It is supported by a five-year, $17 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

The team behind the Mi Guía (My Guide) pilot research study shared that it has successfully built a smartphone app for English-speaking or Spanish-speaking Latino women completing treatment for breast cancer. The app has been tested across two longitudinal studies, and the team has published three peer-review journal articles and presented findings at four national conferences. Betina Yanez (NU) and Francisco Iacobelli (NEIU) are the principal investigators on this pilot grant.

Another of ChicagoCHEC’s unique research endeavors relates to a pilot research project titled We Can Connect, which addresses barriers to breast cancer screening among women with special needs.

Citizen Scientists, ChicagoCHEC’s third research pilot project highlighted during the community forum, also provided insightful and inspiring prostate cancer-related information to community members.  Karriem Watson (UI Cancer Center) is one of the project’s principal investigators and served as discussion moderator for the first discussion panel.

Northeastern Professor of Mathematics Lidia Filus, who is ChicagoCHEC’s newly appointed principal investigator, was delighted to see the impressive community turnout and engagement at the forum’s various educational and networking activities.

“I am excited to assume my new role in this important cancer equity collaborative,” Filus said. “Hosting our biggest community event of the year at Kennedy-King College in Englewood, one of our entrapment communities, was strategic in terms of forming new academic collaborations between the city colleges of Chicago and ChicagoCHEC’s affiliated universities.”

Andrea Evans, director of Northeastern’s Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, gave the community forum’s welcoming remarks.

“The first step in addressing inequities of any sort is to acknowledge that they exist and explore the reasons why they exist,” Evans said. “Only then can communities and people heal.”

The ChicagoCHEC community forum brought together myriad stories of cancer, from those afflicted (patients and caregivers) to those who study and treat it. This forum served to address the inequities but also to place everyone on the path of healing since virtually everybody is affected, in one way or another, by this disease.

Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, rallied the event’s participants by emphasizing the hardworking nature and determination to rise above socioeconomic limitations encountered by underserved minority students of Chicago neighborhoods such as Pilsen/Little Village, Englewood and the South and West Sides of Chicago. Chancellor Salgado emphasized the importance of forming city- wide alliances and collaborations to overcome common societal-level barriers to cancer equity among underserved communities.

“We know our students, we know their talents, we know their capabilities, and we are just pleased too that this partnership has recognized the capability of our students, side by side with students from ChicagoCHEC-affiliated universities and invited City Colleges to be part of this,” he said.

A significant portion of ChicagoCHEC’s community forum was dedicated to a conversation between cancer survivors, caretakers and community members eager to learn more about cancer barriers and solutions. The discussion panel highlighted current projects being conducted by this research collaborative and the communities they work with.

“Our disability community’s contributions are often undervalued in the academic and research world, but we have been able to forge a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with ChicagoCHEC because the staff has listened, have allowed us to do trainings and respected our considerable experience in health care issues concerning people with disabilities,” said Tom Wilson, a ChicagoCHEC community steering member and a leader in the special needs community’s fight for health equity. “Our inclusion in the annual meeting is a good example of this.”

During the forum’s lunch session, ChicagoCHEC Community Engagement Core leaders Lisa Aponte-Soto (UIC), Elena Navas-Nacher (Community Health Scientist and Educator, NEIU) and Magdalena Nava (NU, Community Health Educator) gave an overview of ChicagoCHEC’s community engagement activities. Sonia Kupfer, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic and co-director of the Comprehensive Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic, served as keynote speaker.

The forum concluded with a panel of cancer patients and caregivers sharing their stories about “surviving and thriving.” During workshop sessions, high school students and faculty from the INSTITUTO del Progreso Latino/Science Academy addressed myths and facts about HPV and cancer prevention.

Through community-informed and -tailored activities such as its annual community forum, ChicagoCHEC is setting a new standard of collaborating with various community-based organizations/partners that serve vulnerable minority populations that have been neglected in the fight against cancer in the Chicago area.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, low-income Chicago communities that are predominantly African-American or Latino face cancer death rates up to double the national average. Among populations with disabilities, data indicate that several barriers around access to and delivery of cancer screening services limit these individuals from equal cancer prevention and treatment opportunities available to the general population. Kupfer’s keynote address highlighted statistics related to colorectal cancer screenings (colonoscopy) among people with special needs, ages 50 to 75 years. Overall, 62 percent of people with any disability get screened for colorectal cancer. The colorectal screening differs for individuals with hearing impairment (65 percent), vision (49 percent), cognitive limitations (56 percent) and mobility disability (63 percent).

In addition, ChicagoCHEC completed its third summer fellowship program for minority and/or underserved college students in 2018. In total, 51 Chicago-area college students have completed fellowships, with many moving on to master’s and doctoral research program.

ChicagoCHEC research assistants Manashi Dutta and Rut Ortiz, both from Northeastern, helped to plan and execute the forum.

“My choice to pursue a career in science has been supplemented by my experiences with ChicagoCHEC,” said Ortiz, a former fellow. “As a summer fellow, I absorbed all I could learn and wanted to put it into practice. During my time as a research assistant, I witnessed professionals and communities coming together for the purpose of bettering the lives of people. This fuels me to study, conduct research and simply do more. It is absolutely worth it in order to make a difference in society. Since the beginning of my journey, I have been—and still am—all in.” 

More information on ChicagoCHEC research projects, training opportunities and partnerships for community members to get involved is available at chicagochec.org or by emailing info@chicagochec.org.