According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2019–2021: The causes of inequalities in cancer care “are complex and reflect social and economic disparities and cultural differences that affect cancer risk, as well as differences in access to high-quality health care, more than biological differences.”

The Cancer Community Awards (or C2 Awards) — presented by AstraZeneca’s YOUR Cancer Program and Scientific American Custom Media — celebrate grassroots organizations and individuals making impactful changes for people with cancer. There are five distinct award categories. The Catalyst for Equity Award, a new category introduced this year, honors individuals and organizations that strive to overcome longstanding disparities in accessing preventive services and quality care, many of which have been made worse during the pandemic.

The 2021 finalists for the Catalyst for Equity Award bring breast-cancer education, screening and psychological support to a range of underserved groups and demonstrate how an individual or organization can develop models that could inspire positive changes for other communities. We had an opportunity to speak with each of these finalists about their work, and here’s what they said.

BEULAH BRENT, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SISTERS WORKING IT OUT

With more than 30 years spent providing breast cancer-screening services to underserved patients, Beulah Brent works to make health equity attainable for African American and Latina women in and around Chicago, Illinois. Under her leadership, Sisters Working It Out (SWIO) offers an integrated system of education, care coordination and psychosocial support for underserved communities in the area.

In the late 1990s, I landed a position as the manager of the mammography department at John Stroger Hospital. Within my first two years, I realized that we had some issues getting women to schedule a mammogram. So, we started our community health worker program to educate the women on the importance of getting a mammogram.

Sisters Working It Out came up with education solutions and strategies to make sure that we could go into the most underserved, under-insured communities in and around Chicago. We also help cancer patients and caregivers navigate their way through the system. But there are so many more people out there who need this assistance. Each year, we educate 12 women to come in to be navigators or community health workers. I’m so grateful to find women who are willing to give up their time to assist us. It is amazing!

CARMEN ORTIZ, PhD, FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CÍRCULO DE VIDA CANCER SUPPORT AND RESOURCE CENTER

Carmen Ortiz founded the Círculo de Vida Cancer Support and Resource Center to help Spanish-speaking cancer patients and their families — many from lower-income, immigrant communities — navigate cancer and the complexities of the medical system. Her group has helped more than 5,000 patients and their families.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, when I was 39, three months after finishing my doctorate in psychology. In 1989, after chemotherapy, I went to work at a mental health clinic with the hope of putting breast cancer behind me. I didn’t want to talk about it nor be around anyone who had it.

Three to four years later, the mental health clinic received a call from a woman who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, was depressed and wanted to speak with someone. My boss thought she would be a good client for me to work with. In working with this one client, I learned how little information and resources there were in Spanish. Working with her motivated me to use my experience to help other Latinas.

I became involved with a cancer center in San Francisco around 1994. I ran their Spanish language support group until 1998. I left, but continued running the group, and put together an advisory committee to begin discussing opening a cancer center. We received our nonprofit status in 2003 and Círculo de Vida was born.

EQUAL HOPE, REPRESENTED BY ANNE MARIE MURPHY, PhD, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Formerly known as the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, Equal Hope combats racial disparities in women’s health. As of 2013, after work led by Equal Hope, Chicago was number one in the United States for reducing breast cancer deaths among Black women. Executive director and molecular geneticist, Anne Marie Murphy, describes how Equal Hope pursues equitable cancer care.

In 2007, we started publishing work showing that Chicago had large disparities in breast cancer mortality, where African-American women died at far higher rates than white women. In contrast to Chicago, cities such as New York had very low breast cancer disparities. We believe those gaps are likely driven by structural issues — such as access to healthcare and structural racism — rather than biological variation.

Based on our research, we have designed an array of interventions that include specific navigation programs helping women diagnosed with cancer get to a comprehensive facility and cancer quality improvement programs educating mammography technologists on how to position and compress breasts to get the best image. After a decade of work, the high death gap in Chicago has been drastically reduced. We have created a successful evidence-based model for understanding and reducing disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer and are expanding to other women’s cancers.

I think a catalyst for equity is a group that is willing to shake the cage for good, to create a better, more just world where everybody has an equal chance for long life and good health.

Finalists for the third annual C2 Awards were selected by a distinguished panel of judges who are a part of the broader cancer community. They include leaders from healthcare systems, research institutes, advocacy groups and other organizations working to transform cancer care from one person’s disease into a true community effort. The winners of all five 2021 C2 Awards will be announced at a virtual ceremony in October.

To learn more about the C2 Awards and the YOUR Cancer program, please visit YourCancer.org.