Dr. Paris Thomas with Equal Hope

Connecting Breast Cancer Education to Community: Equal Hope

Stories@Gilead - December 07, 2022

On any given day on the west side of Chicago, you might encounter something unexpected. Outside a retail store or hair salon, there may be a table providing breast cancer education and resources – and it’s most likely staffed by Equal Hope, an organization that provides support and education for women facing or at risk of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Paris Thomas, PhD, Equal Hope’s Executive Director, says this unconventional form of outreach is a vital part of what the organization does. “I think it’s amazing that our health workers reach the community in places like that,” she says. “You don't have to come to us, we'll come to you. This helps us have personal conversations where people feel comfortable to tell us their truth.”

Equal Hope Addresses Cancer Health Disparities in Chicago 
In a two-year period, from 2005 to 2007, published research showed Black women in Chicago had a 62% higher mortality rate than White women, Paris says. The statistic was shocking to her when she saw it, not just because of the number, but because it set Chicago apart – other major cities were not seeing the same level of disparity. When Equal Hope was founded in 2008, it was to tackle this issue from multiple angles: demanding that medical centers hire more skilled workers, educating the community around preventative care and early treatment, and urging the local government to invest more in underserved communities. 

For Paris, this work has always been personal: She was born and raised in the west side of Chicago, and breast cancer runs in her family. Her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor.

“As a Black mother myself, I saw my mother go through breast cancer and the struggles that came with that,” says Paris. “I really connected to the mission and vision of Equal Hope to help underserved women access quality care.”

Increasing Outreach Efforts
But that mission became more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, elective procedures were put on pause for a few months,” explains Paris. “During that time, Black women who are particularly high-risk for breast cancers like TNBC were not being seen.”

Two years in, that delay has continued, says Paris. Breast cancer centers are still catching up on their backlog, and COVID-19 safety protocols and understaffing slow down the care they can provide. For the community Paris and Equal Hope serves, this could have severe impacts.

“People aren't able to get the necessary timely screenings they need in order to detect cancer,” says Paris. “And if you're not detecting cancer in a timely fashion, it’s more likely to metastasize.”

Equal Hope is trying to catch its community up. With support from Gilead, the organization has been able to increase outreach efforts and close the waiting gap between appointments and treatment that grew during COVID-19. But addressing the medical hurdles is only part of what Equal Hope does, which brings us back to the tables outside of salons and retail stores.

“Everyone has so many other things that they're focused on,” Paris says. “But we want to keep it in the forefront of people’s minds that preventative breast health screenings are still critical. We don’t want a cancer diagnosis to be missed.”

Read more Gilead community stories like Latinas Contra Cancer, a nonprofit advocacy organization raising awareness about cancer in the Latinx community.

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