Black in Cancer: Not Just a Week-long Event, but an Ongoing Movement

Reading time: 6 minutes

Jessica Desamero

Black in Cancer week, held from October 11-17, is a week-long event full of highlighting amazing Black scientists in cancer research and medicine, addressing cancer myths and disparities in the Black community, and discussing ways to diversify the cancer workforce.

The Black in Cancer event was hosted by the Black in Cancer organization, co-founded by Sigourney Bell and Dr. Henry J. Henderson. 

Bell is a 2nd year graduate student at Cambridge University, and her research looks at rare pediatric brain tumors. Prior to graduate school, she worked in the oncology department of a pharmaceutical company for 3.5 years, where she fell in love with cancer research. Outside of science, she likes to sing and is part of a gospel choir. 

Henderson is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center with a PhD in integrative biosciences. Initially he wanted to be a veterinarian, but after rotating in a cancer laboratory and seeing a cancer cell under a microscope, he was hooked. Outside of science, he likes working out and being with his four dogs.

Black in Cancer stemmed from last summer’s creation of Black Birders week. Bell and Henderson were looking for others who were Black in cancer research and came across each other on Twitter. Since they only knew a few Black cancer researchers, they wanted to somehow get the community together, which led them to create a channel on Slack – a type of communication platform. This Slack channel grew, and from there they realized a potential for more.  

“We really thought about what was important for us and the challenges we face within our own community”, said Bell. “Two of the biggest things are that we don’t see people who look like us in positions that we may want to be in or may think about going into, and in our own communities, what do they understand about cancer and why is there such a disparity between the Black community and surviving cancer. So how we could use what we have, the skills and the knowledge and just being a face that looks like our own community, to be able to put across that message.” 

Henderson added, “It’s just us finding a way to connect people who could share the same experiences that we’ve gone through or that we will go through as researchers and as doctors.”

With 14 other brilliant scientists, Black in Cancer was formed. As with forming any organization, there were challenges. “The hardest was having 16 opinions, 16 ideas, 16 strong voices, and so it’s kind of like a group project,” said Henderson. Bell had the added challenge of living in the UK. “The hardest part for me was having a whole bunch of amazing people that you’re working with that are all across an ocean with a very big time difference.” But ultimately, they worked together as one cohesive team. “The best part for me was working with everyone. I met so many new friends; we were having fun doing this,” said Henderson. 

This hard work paid off, as people have learned a lot during Black in Cancer week. “I think the best part for me was seeing people who were like ‘wow that was really informative, I didn’t know that before’, and now walking away informed and empowered about their own healthcare decisions moving forward,” said Bell. “They can then go on and tell their own communities, their own people around them those facts rather than the misinformation just continuing to spiral.”

The week also personally meant a lot to them. “It was the first time I’ve seen so many Black people who were in cancer in my life,” commented Henderson on his reaction to roll call day, where countless Black scientists, doctors, and advocates in the cancer field introduced themselves. “We go to all these conferences, giant conferences, but we don’t see that.” And on the day people spoke about why they’re involved in cancer research and advocacy, Bell was especially emotional. “When I go back and I look at the ‘why Black in cancer,’ this is why. I’m doing it for all of these individual stories, all of these individual people that have lost somebody or have seen somebody struggle or suffer with cancer.”

Henderson and Bell are grateful for all the unexpected support. “On the first day, there were just so many people supporting us, like big people, like Nature and Cell and Forbes. These are people who we didn’t expect to hop on,” said Henderson. “All we wanted to do was highlight the people who are doing these amazing things in the cancer field and it turned out that everyone else loved that idea as well.” Bell added, “It’s just been amazing the amount of people that are onboard within the community but also like outside in terms of people being allies, people being like ‘we think that what you’re doing is really amazing, how can we help you to sustain this?’, and I think that’s really heartwarming.”

Some recurring themes throughout Black in Cancer week included addressing the cancer disparities gap and increasing the inclusion and visibility of Black scientists in the cancer field. Going forward, Black in Cancer has two main initiatives: cancer education and mentoring. 

For cancer education, they plan to have monthly seminars that will be easy to understand and accessible for everyone. “We feel strongly about educating our communities, specifically the community who looks like us, the Black community, about a disease that affects us much worse than any other race,” said Henderson, “so we take extreme pride in educating our own community about this issue along with screening, ways to reduce risk, things to ask your doctor, things to look out for, family history.” 

As for mentoring, they plan to create mentorship programs for Black students of a wide age range, from kindergarten students mildly interested in science to postdoctoral fellows unsure of their future career paths. One goal is to give these students a glimpse into the many different career options and leadership positions available to them. “Being able to see what you can be and what you aspire to be, and just to know that that’s possible encourages you to do that, but if you don’t see it, you wonder whether that path is blocked off to you,” said Bell. Just as importantly, they want these students to just have someone who understands them and who can truly support them.

“In order to facilitate change you need to have a constant stream of conversations and intentional effort,” said Henderson. “We’re building this out for the next generation of scientists to come up behind us and carry the torch, and we’re just providing the platform so that they can do the same thing that we did.” 

And at the end of the day, it’s about helping save lives. As Bell said, “If all of this means that one, two, five, ten people decide to go for a screening, that they get diagnosed earlier than they otherwise would, then it means that they then get the healthcare that they need and survive their cancer, like that will be more than a win for us.” 

Edited by Rachel Cherney

Image from Black in Cancer

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