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Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Whittier Street Health Center

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and  Whittier Street Health Center
Christopher Lathan (R) hopes that Dana-Farber’s partnership will help Whittier patients make a smooth transition to cancer treatment. (Photo: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

Working together to reduce the unequal burden of cancer

Cancer affects everyone, but it is not borne equally by all communities.

As the second leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control,more than 1.5 million new cases and approximately 570,000 deaths from cancer were projected for 2012.  Within these numbers minorities suffer the greatest burden of cancer, according to For all cancers combined, the death rate is almost 25 percent higher for minorities than for whites.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) and Whittier Street Health Center have teamed up to help eliminate disparities in cancer care and prevention in the community. After more than a decade of partnering with Whittier on early detection and survivorship efforts, Dana-Farber opened a cancer clinic at the health center’s brand new Tremont Street building in January 2012.

The Dana-Farber Community Cancer Care Clinic at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury features six exam rooms, consultation and meeting areas, and a patient resource room. It is believed to be the country’s first dedicated oncology space in an inner-city health center. Every two weeks, one member of a rotating group of five Dana-Farber oncologists spends a day in the Whittier clinic, meeting with patients for screenings, consults and educational sessions.

Whittier’s patient population hails from 20 different countries and is predominantly comprised of people of color.  The clinic’s goal, says Christopher Lathan, M.D., DFCI faculty director for Cancer Care Equity, is to “close the gap” so that cancer patients at Whittier can make a smooth transition to treatment. “In the past, when Whittier patients were referred to Dana-Farber, they often didn’t show up for appointments,” says Lathan, a thoracic oncologist and the new clinic’s director. “Dana-Farber has been seeking to change this by reaching out to the community with educational sessions, screenings, and other initiatives.”

Dana-Farber signs posted in Whittier’s gleaming, sun-splashed new facility are a visible example of the Institute’s efforts to bring cancer care and education to the community. The health center, which has been in the same neighborhood since 1933, is a trusted resource, seeing 19,000 patients a year for primary care and other needs. Its nearly 50-50 female/male patient ratio is unique for urban health centers, which traditionally have a hard time drawing male residents.

“We are not only focusing on coordinated care in this building, through our comprehensive program, but also on our external referrals,” says Whittier President and CEO Frederica Williams, who is also a Dana-Farber trustee. “Here, patients can see Dana-Farber’s commitment to addressing health care disparities. Early detection is a priority, along with getting people connected, and helping them navigate the system. We want to build a community around them; nobody should have to face cancer alone,” she explains.

The close interaction between DFCI oncologists and Whittier internists is another key benefit. “Whenever you can bring that type of expertise into a neighborhood health center, it’s a big plus,” says Whittier Associate Medical Director Mark Drews, M.D.  “We can learn from each other, and guide patients through the system more easily.” A case in point came one recent Friday morning, when a patient diagnosed with prostate cancer at the Roxbury facility came to the Longwood Avenue campus for his first Dana-Farber appointment. Lathan met him in the waiting room, and later remarked, “I could sense the man really trusted me – and that’s because we first met at Whittier.”

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Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.