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When Michael Stern was diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago he was shocked. He’d had no idea a disease was attacking him from the inside. Multiple surgeries later, Stern, an Aventura, Florida Commissioner, began to realize how lack of access and information contributes to the health disparities among different ethnicities in the United States. Now, he advocates for others by raising awareness.
“I’ve gone through major surgeries but this did not have to happen. It could’ve been prevented. So, my role is to let everybody know that this is something you should take seriously,” Commissioner Stern told The Black Wall Street Times after speaking on a panel about health disparities among Black men and boys in D.C. on July 27.
The event was organized and hosted by Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-24, who established and chairs the Commission on the Social Status of Black men and boys.
Formed in 2020 within the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the group works to investigate potential civil rights violating affecting Black men and boys, along with studying health disparities they face in “education, criminal justice, health, employment, fatherhood, mentorship, and violence.”
Raising awareness to harness solutions
Thursday’s event featured a panel of health experts seeking to elevate the issue on a national stage.
“The goal is to work to get rid of some of the stereotypes that stop Black men from advancing in society. It’s been going on since slavery,” Congresswoman Wilson told The Black Wall Street Times. “One of those is access to healthcare because of poverty, because of the criminal justice system.”
As a former principal and school board member interacting with children on a regular basis, the issue hits home for Rep. Wilson, who believes little children deserve to have their fathers with them for as long as humanly possible.
Notably, Black men are more likely to contract diseases like colon cancer, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. They’re also more likely to die from the diseases than their White counterparts. According to research shared by the Congresswoman, Black men born in 1960 have an average life expectancy of just 61 years. Many don’t live long enough to collect social security despite working their entire lives.
“We have to figure out a way to dismantle structural racism and reform the criminal justice system, invest in underesourced communities, and ensure equitable access. This will help us address the root causes,” Rep. Wilson said.
Research alone won’t change health disparities
Ultimately, in a country that has enslaved and experimented on Black people for centuries, distrust of medical institutions contributes to the health disparities, too. Yet despite decades of research on the issue, little progress has been made.
“Discrimination has been a perennial problem,” Dr. Derek Griffith told The Black Wall Street Times. As a professor of Health Management and Policy and Oncology at Georgetown University, founding Co-Director of the Racial Justice Institute, and founder and Director of the Center for Men’s Health Equity, Dr. Griffith offered his expertise at the panel event.
He acknowledged that efforts to study health disparities have done little to move the needle forward.
“The National Academy of Sciences is reconstituting a committee to look at unequal treatment. We haven’t made great progress in the last 20 years,” he said.
“You shouldn’t wait for someone to die for people to wake up”
Yet Dr. Griffith urges advocates and communities to look at other barriers to progress, such as the differences in gender and homophobic perceptions some men may possess.
For instance, while some men may not want to have a colonoscopy due to perceived violation of a sensitive bodily area, Dr. Griffith notes there are other less invasive methods available that could potentially save someone’s life who may have colon cancer and not know it.
For millions, the shock of racial health disparities became reality when beloved actor Chadwick Boseman, famous for his role as Black Panther, passed away at 43 from colon cancer.
“I didnt realize how powerful it is when I tell my story. After the briefing at least 10 people came up and said they’re going to get a colonoscopy,” Commissioner Stern said. “It does take these unfortunate situation, like Boseman, but you shouldn’t have to wait for someone to die for people to wake up.”