Good communication and a take-charge attitude can help close the gap on cancer health disparities

Cancer Center health educator offers tips to African Americans and other minority groups

AfAmerCancerExperienceIn February, Madeline Gonzalez, a health educator at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, participated in a panel discussion on the African American cancer experience. It took place at the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor in recognition of Black History Month, and addressed the unique ways that cancer impacts the African American community. Here are the highlights of Madeline’s presentation on cancer health disparities, which we are sharing as part of National Minority Cancer Awareness Week:

It is important to know your family’s health history, if at all possible. When cancers in general, or one kind in particular – such as breast cancer – seem to happen in your family, it may mean there are genetic factors that make it more likely you will get cancer than the rest of the population. Whether or not you get genetic testing to see if there’s a genetic reason for your family’s cancer history, getting regular screenings for cancer is important. These can include screenings for:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Neck, throat and mouth
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • And more!

Madeline says it is important to take charge of your own health situation, even if you don’t know much about your family’s health history. Getting regular screenings and taking sensible precautions helps to put you in charge.

“For example, we people of color often don’t think of skin exposure to the sun. It’s not true that pigment protects – we are all susceptible to skin cancer,” she says. “Bob Marley’s first cancer was skin cancer and it metastasized. Look at changes in your nailbeds for anything that isn’t normal. Look at the palms of your hands and soles of your feet for bruising or scarring. For us, these places are where skin cancer shows up the quickest. At the nail shop, take off all your nail polish every once in a while and have a good look. Have someone look at your back occasionally. These are things you can do to find any skin cancer early, when it’s treatable.”

Madeline has other pointers, and these relate to diet and exercise.

“Don’t eat burned meat!” she says. The crusty parts of grilled or barbequed meats have carcinogens in them, a known cause of cancer. Other tips:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and work toward your ideal body/mass index, or BMI.
  • Exercise as much as you can, at least five times a week. Put on your favorite CD and dance. Go out walking and listen to the music you love.
  • Add more plant-based foods to your diet and reduce the amount of meat on your plate.
  • Stop smoking.

“Do the best with the temple you were granted. It’s all about those tiny changes. There’s always something you can do to live a little better,” she says. “I just love cookies and cakes, but instead of never eating them, I have some ‘no desserts’ days each week.”

Madeline says people need to ask the hard questions when they have a doctor’s appointment. For example, if your parents smoked two packs of cigarettes a day like hers did, you are at risk for lung cancer because of all the second hand smoke you breathed in. Talk to your doctor about it to see what you can do.

“This is why communication is so important,” she says. “Not just with your doctor, or someone else in the doctor’s office that you feel comfortable talking to. Look ahead to the next generation. Talk to your kids, your nieces, your nephews about family health. Become more educated about cancer issues that are particular to your group, whether it’s African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, etc.”

Madeline Gonzales, M.Ed.

Madeline Gonzales, M.Ed.

Editor’s note: Madeline Gonzalez, M.Ed., has more than 25 years’ experience in education, social service and health care employment settings. Her work has always included a teaching and community-based component; she has worked in the areas of homelessness and disease prevention.  In her work, Madeline connects with others and exchanges ideas about healthier living. At times, there are difficult conversations about illness and loss. During these times she focuses on the “gifts” of the conversation and listens for what may be needed.  As a health educator at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, Madeline plans and implements  outreach and education activities to inform the general public about cancer prevention and risk reduction, age-appropriate screening and early cancer detection.

Take the next step:

  • Read these cancer facts for African Americans prepared by the American Cancer Society.
  • Learn about cancer health disparities for all groups from the National Cancer Institute.
  • Read about research at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center to understand why African Americans with colon cancer are more likely to have a type associated with poor outcomes.

outreachThe U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Community Outreach Program is committed to educating the general public about cancer and its prevention through special events and partnerships with local organizations. The program also sponsors the Minority Outreach Initiative to provide culturally-tailored events and materials for communities of color. For more information, call 734-998-7071.


Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.