In Grand Rapids, black women are being diagnosed with breast cancer at higher rates than white women. Their diagnoses are coming at later stages of the cancer due to a lack of access to preventative screenings and ability to afford treatment. Educators, residents and advocates in the southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids are taking charge to address these disparities and bring about systemic change in healthcare for black residents.
They call one another sisters, and although none share a biological connection to each other, their bond is a familial one. These women have been there for one another in the doctor’s office when the dreaded diagnosis is given, they are driving each other to appointments when transportation is a barrier, and, most of all, they are bringing their community together as they fight for their lives with a breast cancer diagnosis.
Every first Monday of the month, women of Grand Rapids’ southeast community who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, are breast cancer survivors, or have a family member who has been diagnosed, meet at Gilda’s Club to find support and share resources. Gilda’s Club is a local nonprofit that provides free emotional healthcare to anyone in the community on a cancer journey or grieving the death of someone in their life.
Traci Whiting, the group facilitator and the minority program coordinator for the organization, is passionate about helping create a space where women of color in the community feel supported through the arduous journey that is a breast cancer diagnosis.
Whiting, who lives in the southeast community, first became involved with Gilda’s Club during her college internship at the organization in 2014. After she graduated with her degree in social work, Whiting was hired part time in the organization.
“Black women in Michigan are four times more likely to get diagnosed later,” Whiting says, explaining the importance of her role as a social worker serving her own community.
Not only are black women more likely to die from the disease than white women, in Kent County black women are also being diagnosed at higher rates than their white counterparts, according to data from the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI). Stephanie Pierce, Health Education Coordinator at GRAAHI, explains that awareness and education can come a long way in a diagnosis for an individual, and her work with the southeast community of Grand Rapids involved educating and empowering women to take charge of their healthcare.
"We work to educate women to advocate for themselves at their doctors' office, to be ready to ask questions, and be empowered to ask for a second opinion if they need it," says Pierce.
In the United States, cancer is the number two leading cause of death among black Americans, and in the last four years the racial disparity among breast cancer diagnoses has increased. Because breast cancer is a type of cancer with outcomes affected most by access to screening and treatment, the figures are evidence of the lack of preventative healthcare black residents in Grand Rapids have. To address these outcomes, GRAAHI partners with Gilda's Club and Seeds of Promise to teach residents of the southeast community to take preventative health measures, receive regular check ups and mamograms, and learn more about their family health history.
According to Whiting, a diagnosis for a resident of the southeast side, 67.8 percent of whom are living in poverty, can mean facing difficulty meeting the costs of housing, transportation, and their basic needs. In Grand Rapids, the percentage of black and Latinx residents diagnosed with breast cancer is triple that of white residents, at 38 percent and 34.6 percent, according to data obtained from the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
“The disparity comes in the diagnosis. A diagnosis can spiral someone into poverty. More African American women are diagnosed later, and this affects the community because it affects the household, as many of these women are the sole income providers for their household,” says Whiting.
In the southeast community, only 2.8 percent of businesses provide health care and social services, whereas in the Heritage Hill neighborhood these businesses make up 25.7 percent of all businesses, according to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. Although both of these neighborhoods are mere blocks away from each, the resident demographic of each is vastly different, Heritage Hill with a 19.2 percent people of color and the southeast community representing a 59.6 percent This further demonstrates the disproportionate availability of health care services for people of color in the city of Grand Rapids.
Whiting’s empathy, understanding of the ways systemic barriers disproportionately affect people of color in accessing health care, and familiarity with her community helps provide a sense of comfort and home to the women from the southeast side she comes in contact with.
“We walk with them with compassion, love and empathy. We want them to know they are not alone in their journey,” says Whiting.
To address some of the health disparities women on the southeast side of the city face, Whiting has developed partnerships with Seeds of Promise, an organization in the neighborhood, and the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute. These partnerships involve outreach to the community and providing spaces in the southeast neighborhood to educate other women about their breast health. All of these resources, and support provided by Gilda’s Club, is at no cost to the community.
“We are minimizing the barriers that may arise for the women to come receive our services,” shares Whiting.
For the social worker, giving back to her community helps inform how she used her expertise to educate and welcome her neighbors and friends of the southeast side of Grand Rapids.
Whiting in one of the children areas available for the community at Gilda's Club “I love my community because I am a part of it. It is rich in culture and reciprocal. Anybody can live in my community and feel at home,” says Whiting about the southeast side of Grand Rapids.
To get connected with Traci Whiting and the support group for women, please contact her at 616-350-1155. If you want to help support the work of Whiting make sure to attend the 20th Annual Sisters to Sisters Tea: A Remembrance & Celebration on April 8th from 1-4pm at Gilda’s Club (806 Bridge St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504). This event is a fundraiser for the group, and is open to the public.
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.
Photography by Dreams by Bella.