In 2020, over 276,000 American women and 2,600 men will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer. For these individuals, Breast Cancer Awareness month is especially poignant. Those hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ quickly realize the importance of having a support network as they move through diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dolores Moorehead who has supported cancer patients for over 30 years. Dolores Moorehead, BS, MS, APCC, is the Lead Client Navigator/Multicultural Client Support Clinician, at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC) in Berkeley, CA. The WCRC offers free services to people diagnosed with cancer, with a focus on those who are low-income, people of color, and members of the queer/trans community. Among her many roles, Dolores facilitates the Sister to Sister support group for African American/Black women diagnosed with cancer. Prior to joining WCRC in 2002, Dolores worked as the Patient Services Manager at the American Cancer Society for more than thirteen years.
Dolores, what drove you to work in cancer support?
Dolores: I can say that one of the things that really drove me to work in this field was the fact that my father was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma when I was 14, and culturally my younger sister and I were not allowed to tell anyone. Also, as a teenager I was afraid that my father would die and I did not have a place to talk about it. When I started working in cancer support, I realized how important it was for patients to never walk a cancer journey alone and that they needed to have someone with whom to share their story. I am dedicated to do my best to provide that attentive ear with the resources, help and support that patients need.
How do you approach supporting the women in your community?
Dolores: When I chose to work in mental health, I realized it was important to look at the cultural relationships of my clients because relationships are how many people of color build trust. It is also important that I look like them and let them know that mental health is important. To truly support someone, I look at all aspects of someone’s identity, not just race or gender. It is their religious or spiritual beliefs, their educational background, disabilities, visible or not, and what has impacted them in life. I strive to see that person for who they really are.
“I think it's important to admit that they are the experts of their life, you aren’t, so asking rather than assuming, and also acknowledging if they say something and you don't really understand what it means, be big enough to say, ‘I haven’t heard that before, can you explain it to me’. This is a way to build trust”
In October we seem inundated with pink ribbons. How do women in your community who’ve had an experience with breast cancer feel about Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Dolores: From my experience, African American survivors have really connected with pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness month and that’s good. For me, I consider how I utilize that month to educate people about breast cancer. I remind them that breast cancer occurs throughout the whole year and that while it gets highlighted in October, it's important to take the message of awareness and continue it year-round.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed existing racial disparities in health care. With your experience in navigation and supporting patients, what steps do you see that need to be taken in order to increase participation of people of color in clinical trials?
Dolores: While there is more awareness now about the importance of getting individuals of color to participate in clinical trials, recruitment really hasn’t changed. One of the things that I've really thought about is how do you bring individuals that you want from the community on board? How do you make them feel comfortable? How do you let them know their words and thoughts are important? You can do this by mentoring community members, tell them you understand this is new to them, yet, YOU make them feel important because they are. That will make an impact.
These community members can go out to their faith-based communities, sororities, and other community venues and teach others about cancer research. People learn about research and clinical trials from a trusted individual who is a part of their group and looks like the people they are serving. It all comes down to building trust.
“I think it's important for researchers to know their community and then to pull the gatekeepers from that community so people will realize, oh, she is like me and I can trust what she's saying.”
You have to do the groundwork first. It’s important for researchers to be willing to come to the community and be willing to hear those hard ‘Whys’. Why are you here? Why do you want to do a study on us? It is really empowering to an individual to be able to ask the questions. For communities of color who have not felt empowered, it’s important to let them know they have the right to ask questions and receive answers. Then when the study is over, the most important step for researchers is to return and share the information, and what is going to happen next.
“I really think that it is important for the researcher to acknowledge the history of clinical trials in people of color, for example, the Tuskegee Airmen study and Henrietta Lacks, and explain that this will not happen again, and this is how they are different.”
One thing that’s true whether I am supporting women with breast cancer or talking to folks who may be clinical trial candidates, is that we have to meet them where they are and we have to be quiet, sit back, have humility and listen even when it becomes uncomfortable. It is only then we can understand the community and build trust.
I want to thank Dolores for taking her time for this interview and for her tireless work in supporting women with breast cancer. Breast Cancer Awareness month is more than just cancer awareness especially for people of color. As Dolores has stated, it is understanding people’s cultures, beliefs, relationships and history. It is listening to their stories, answering their questions and above all empowering them to be partners not only in their healthcare but as important contributors to clinical trials.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.