Faculty, staff, and students at the Rutgers School of Public Health are committed to cancer research, prevention and education. Though multidisciplinary and collaborative partnerships, their efforts focus on cancer disparities, surveillance, risk communication, and much more.
In particular, the Rutgers School of Public Health would like to highlight the major work of Dr. Kitaw Demissie, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health. His work, particularly in cancer outcomes, spans three countries on two continents. After earning a Doctor of Medicine from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, Dr. Demissie pursued a clinical fellowship in community medicine at McGill University in Quebec, where he eventually earned a doctoral degree in epidemiology and biostatistics. However, it was not until he enrolled in a health services research fellowship program at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School that Dr. Demissie first realized that race plays a part in cancer survival.
In 2003, the Institute of Medicine published its powerful report, Unequal Treatment, Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare, providing major evidence of worse treatment outcomes in African Americans and other racial minorities. After reading that publication, Dr. Demissie was struck by one particularly startling question: if the rates of incidence of breast cancer are roughly comparable in both black and white women, why is the mortality rate for black women as much as 45 percent higher? “In Canada, [race] wasn’t part of the conversation – vital statistics data are not reported by race – so it was a shock,” says Dr. Demissie. “It had never occurred to me that there could be that much of a difference because of skin color.”
Dr. Demissie and his colleagues are trying to answer that question. In conjunction with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, nearly 1,500 early stage breast cancer patients have enrolled in a study that allows researchers to more closely follow health outcomes. This study is designed to allow researchers to identify various differences as they relate to ethnicity, from the presence of comorbid conditions to dissimilarities in DNA methylation and expression.
Admittedly, there is still work that needs to be done. But Dr. Demissie is optimistic that health professionals can begin to improve cancer survival today. “We know a lot of things – a lot of factors that drive the differences between mortality across races,” Dr. Demissie notes. “However, the most easily modifiable factors relate to patients themselves: fear of cancer, fear of chemotherapy, fear of not knowing what is going to happen if they are diagnosed – all of these prevent people from going to seek care. Our next milestone is working with the community to really make that visible.”
Aside from the work of Dr. Demissie, other faculty have also dedicated their work to ending cancer. Just to name a few – Dr. Adana Llanos, a molecular epidemiologist, studies cancer surveillance and mortality in medically undeserved and minority population in both the U.S. and Caribbean; Dr. Jesse Plascak’s research focuses on the impact of racial-ethnic and socioeconomic disparities and social environmental mechanisms on cancer morbidity and mortality; and Dr. Antoinette Stroup directs New Jersey’s Cancer registry. Further, our Center for Tobacco Studies, under the direction of vice dean Dr. Cristine Delnevo, contributes to our cancer portfolio with their tobacco research, surveillance, and policy work.
As we move into cancer awareness month, we hope that the next generation of health professionals and researchers will forge new relationships at the 2018 New York City Epidemiology Forum at Rutgers School of Public Health in Newark, New Jersey.
For more information or to register
On behalf of Rutgers School of Public Health and all of our researchers, students, and staff, we look forward to continuing our work in making cancer a survivable, non-scary medical anomaly – a reality that we can hasten through collaboration and conversation.