Preventing Colorectal Cancer in the Black Community Starts with Telling the Story

Chadwick Boseman. We all know his story. He was a Howard University alumnus, respected philanthropist, and multifaceted actor, who gave us James Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, before he took on the role that crossed political lines, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and language barriers across the world. Chadwick Boseman passed away at just 43 years of age on August 28, 2020.  He had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“Black people in this country are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer and 40% more likely to die from it. The age for routine screenings has recently been lowered to 45, if you are 45 years of age or older, please get screened,” said Taylor Simone Boseman through tears as she pleaded with a virtual audience tuned into 52nd Annual NAACP Awards.  “Don’t put it off any longer, please get screened. This disease is beatable if you catch it in the early stages and don’t have any time to waste even if you have no family history. And even if you think that nothing is wrong.”

Just prior to accepting her late husband’s posthumous NAACP Image Award the clips rolled, highlighting a lifetime of achievements in the film and entertainment industry, cut short all soon. An already gut-wrenching moment for many, to see once again on-screen, and hear the voice of a talented, young Black actor who played one of the most iconic characters of all time as Marvel’s Black Panther, was met with the equally difficult task of seeing his wife pleading with her people, his people, my people, to take back our power and get screened for colon cancer.

His is just one story…What about the stories of…

  • Shannon Sylvain, 32, a vibrant young woman, who dared to live out her dreams in television and film production. Sylvain later founded Brown Sugar Rehab as a resource to educate Black people on the signs, symptoms, and prevention of the disease.
  • LaToya Wright, 31, a friend, daughter, cousin, professional and young, talented liturgical dancer who performed often for her church. She became a wellness advocate and blogger to share her journey with others.
  • Ahmad “Real” Givens, 33, brother to Chance and reality television star that came to rise in the era of VH1’s reality television reign. A beautiful man who wanted a real chance at love.
  • Lawrence Meadows, 43, husband to Angela, his childhood sweetheart, father of two children ages 11 and 7, Baptist minister, entrepreneur, and according to his brother, NBC News’ Craig Melvin, “…one of the best human beings you would’ve ever know,” who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 39 and died of the disease in January.

Some names you will recognize, others you won’t, yet these four share the common thread of being young, Black people diagnosed with colorectal cancer, more commonly known as colon cancer.

We must remember their stories too.

Colorectal cancer is the 3rd most common cancer among men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, not only are African Americans more likely to die from the disease, but research now shows a rise in colorectal cancer rates among young Black people that fall outside of the recommended screening guidelines. As with all health disparities, there are many reasons for the higher incidences of mortality and morbidity including socioeconomic status, systemic and institutional racism, and epigenetic changes. But screenings can aid in catching precancerous polyps before they mutate into cancer or finding cancer early when treatment works best.

According to the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, a few of the overall barriers to screening are procrastination, misinformation on the preparation process and actual screening, financial impact if screenings are not covered by insurance or perception that screenings are expensive, and misconception that colon cancer is primarily hereditary and persons without a family history need not get screened. As a health communicator and a Black woman, I have personal and professional motivation to help my community make more informed decisions, become their own advocates, and do what’s in their power to take control of their health.

So, how can health communicators effectively combat misconceptions and misinformation to reduce stigma surrounding the disease, aversion to screening methods, and convey the importance of colorectal cancer screenings among Blacks living in the U.S.? In the same way Taylor Simone Boseman issued her powerful and compelling call to action – Tell the Stories!

Storytelling is an integral part of the Black experience. Emanating from deep in the diaspora, through the journey of our ancestors brought to America, to the role of religion and spirituality, to Friday night game nights and kickbacks with friends, stories are part of who we are. Storytelling is one of many cultural traits shared by Black people across the globe, and used as a method not only to entertain but to inform and teach life lessons. All too often however, health is not one of those life lessons. No longer can we be a people that is silent and keeps our health issues in-house. We must rise up and tell our stories as a method of saving ourselves and our communities.

Effective storytelling will incorporate messages that increase awareness, understanding, and adoption of colorectal cancer screenings and:

  • Underscore the urgency of the need to get screened and not procrastinate prioritizing health.
  • Underpin prioritizing personal health.
  • Explain the benefits of colorectal cancer screenings, signs, and symptoms of disease.
  • Foster a peer-to-peer approach which can help reduce stigma, personalize the call to action, create a sense of community, and reduce the idea that people are alone in getting screened.
  • Share the experiences of those who have been screened to reduce misinformation around the prep and screening process.
  • Showcase a variety of screening options.
  • Incorporate calls to action that encourage listeners, viewers, and readers to start a dialogue with their doctors, loved ones, and friends, and share their stories.

Effective storytelling normalizes uncomfortable conversations and helps to make them more comfortable for us and those around us. Often, topics that center around the restroom, regularity, bowel movements, and the like are considered taboo subjects that no one wants to talk about. But the more we talk, the more we share our stories, the more we normalize taking control of our own health and putting our health back in our hands. The more we see ourselves telling our own stories, the more empowered we are to continue the conversation in our homes, with our friends and families, and with our doctors.

“Fearlessness means taking the first step, even when you don’t know where it will take you,” Chadwick Boseman.

It’s not the strength of our silence. It’s the power of our stories.

Angela Young, MPS
Senior Account Supervisor

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The Battle Against Cancer Metaphors: A Case for People-First Language

“Please stop calling me brave.”

I wrote that in a Facebook post in the fall of 2019, after I’d been diagnosed with late-stage colorectal cancer. I didn’t mean it as an admonishment. Friends and family from across the globe had reached out, sent gifts, and generally showered me with more love and support than I ever expected. But some people called me brave, others reminded me that I’m a fighter, a survivor. I saw this echoed by members of online and in-person support groups I’d joined. Even my dentist told me that she was a cancer survivor and, soon, I would be, too! We were Cancer Warriors and we would win this battle!

The truth is this kind of language makes me very uncomfortable.

For some people, underscoring their strength and resilience helps them in the dark moments, when it feels like the treatment is worse than the disease. Focusing on all that we have to live for—to fight for—can make it easier to endure the myriad indignities of testing, prodding, and poking that are inherent in cancer care. But for some of us, framing the disease experience using violent fight language leaves little room for nuance and raises more questions. Are people who have hit five years with no evidence of disease somehow better warriors than those who don’t? If my treatment doesn’t work, does that mean I’m weak or didn’t fight hard enough? If I die, am I less worthy of being remembered as a strong person, a role model, or a good friend?

Cancer is a complex set of diseases, and different people living with it have different preferences for how to describe themselves. I prefer people-first language that emphasizes me over my disease. Phrases like person with cancer versus cancer warrior highlight humanity over condition and hold space for the person involved to be more than one thing. It also allows the person to have multiple feelings about their cancer as things change over time. A year and a half after my initial diagnosis, my feelings have only become more nuanced and complicated; saying I’m “fighting” cancer reduces my experience to the days I have treatment or the drugs I take, rather than encompassing the whole of my emotions, struggles, and accomplishments.

As marketers in the health space, this presents an interesting challenge: How do we reach our target audience without inadvertently alienating a segment of it by using language some appreciate but others don’t? We do what we always strive to do: We listen. It’s important to remember that knowing your audience is one thing; listening to your audience is another. Do we hear people with cancer using these metaphors when they talk with one another? Do oncologists and clinicians use these metaphors? Or do we mainly hear them used in the mainstream media or among the general public? It is our responsibility as communicators to actively listen and take our cues from the audiences we are wanting to inform, educate, and empower.

I find myself in the role of both health communicator and target audience. It’s a surreal place to be sometimes, but it also offers me an opportunity—an opportunity to inform the way we communicate with people with cancer, by improving the way we listen. People-first communication requires intentionality and action. As health communicators it’s time we listen to understand and then incorporate what we hear. In the simplest terms, there are three steps to incorporating a people-first approach:

  • Listen to the patient audience—actively and with the intent to understand;
  • Value their experiences and their perspectives—as they are shared, not necessarily as you assume them to be; and
  • Reflect those learnings in your messaging and outreach.

I value being heard as a person with cancer. And I value the opportunity to bring that experience to my work as a health communicator by both incorporating and promoting messages that put people first.

Allyson Harkey
Digital Content Strategist

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See how Hager Sharp is getting out the vote

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of Americans cast early ballots—by mail, by drop-off box, and by waiting in long lines to vote in person. A week before Election Day, 75 million Americans had already voted and that number continued to rise, with more than 93 million casting votes by the eve of the election.

At Hager Sharp, we believe voting is crucial, regardless of political party. It ensures all our voices are heard, all our viewpoints are represented, and all our elected officials meet the needs of our communities. We also believe that voting should be easy. Every American should have access to plain-language information, alternative means of voting, polling facilities, and reliable transportation.

That’s why many members of the Hager Sharp team have spent the last few months volunteering their time to get out the vote. In total, we’ve dedicated over 250 hours to increasing voter participation, defending voter rights, and ensuring a fair election. We’ve supported organizations such as Vote Forward, MomsRising, Reclaim Our Vote, Fair Fight, Election Protection, and others by writing nearly 700 letters and postcards, sending hundreds of texts, and making dozens of phone calls to voters. We’ve also worked with our local election boards and precincts across the District of Columbia, Georgia, Maryland, and North Carolina to serve as election judges, poll greeters, and poll watchers.

Hager Sharp is incredibly proud of our team’s dedication and is committed to reducing work-related barriers so our staff can not only support these efforts, but also have the opportunity to cast their own votes. As staff have volunteered their time, we’ve encouraged them to use Hager Hours (company-paid volunteer hours for each employee, provided annually), and we’ve also encouraged staff to use Hager Hours or flextime so they can get to the polls at a convenient time, without worrying about their workload or other personal responsibilities.

All of these efforts are one of the many ways we turn ideas that make a difference into actions that matter—and on the eve of this important Election Day, we are hopeful that our team’s efforts have made a positive impact on voter turnout so that each American’s voice is heard and every American’s vote is counted.

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Hager Sharp’s Commitment to Racial Equity

At Hager Sharp, we are devastated and outraged over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Kathryn Johnston, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tony McDade, Stephon Clark, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and countless others. These murders highlight the systemic racism that exists in our country—racism that has been allowed to permeate and take root for centuries. It is way past time for it to end.

Our agency is dedicated to providing marketing and communications support to organizations committed to making meaningful change in the world. Central to the fulfillment of this mission, we are committed to ensuring inclusion, diversity, equity and access within our agency and to supporting these ideals within our clients’ organizations and within our industry and community. We expect the same from organizations with whom we partner.

Our commitment is baked into our vision and values. We embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. We believe our work is better when we include and reflect multiple voices and perspectives. We seek to recruit and retain a team that represents and reflects the many dimensions of diversity: gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability, medical condition, culture, relationship status, interests, heritage, work background, educational background, religion, and more.

In 2018 we determined we could do even better. We took it upon ourselves to look inwardly and improve how we live our core values. After an internal survey and small group discussions, we realized that we needed to do more, in particular, in support of our Black colleagues. Thus began the development of a formal Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Strategic Plan wherein we established specific objectives, strategies, activities, and metrics to hold ourselves accountable to maintaining and enhancing our diverse and inclusive company culture.

With guidance and support from an outside consultant, regular internal conversations specifically around the topics of equity, access and inclusion, formal professional training for managers, and workshops for all staff occurred over the following months. While we are proud of the progress we have made through this program, we know there is more to do.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been working together to identify the specific action steps we can take as a company to be even more deliberate in our stand against racism and for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. As part of that process, we have taken time as a team to reflect, to listen, to understand, to talk, to cry, and, most importantly, to determine how we can do better.

Today we pledge our commitment to driving meaningful change. We know words are shallow if not backed by substance. The concrete actions we will take include:

  • Forming a taskforce that will meet weekly to discuss and implement ongoing plans
  • Granting all Hager Sharpers a day off in June to support their mental and emotional well-being and provide time for education, volunteering, or taking anti-racism action
  • Creating a space for open forums on racism, including holding monthly town hall discussions with all staff to continue to share experiences and ideas, increase our awareness and understanding, and foster open communication
  • Steadily increasing the percentage of our staff who are people of color, especially those who are Black and Hispanic/Latino
  • Investing additional funds for recruiting to ensure a diverse pool of candidates for every position for which we are hiring
  • Creating a formal mentoring program led by Hager Sharp leaders (VP and above, cross practice) to ensure that all Hager Sharpers of color benefit from professional development and career coaching, have equal advancement opportunities, and stay and grow at Hager Sharp
  • Reviewing our promotion criteria and establishing clearer career paths for all employees
  • Continuing our IDEA training initiative, led and facilitated by our external consultant, with trainings on inclusive behaviors for leaders and cultural competency workshops to motivate the use of inclusive language and help staff recognize identify and mitigate unconscious bias
  • Conducting an audit of our spending with vendors and establishing a specific goal to increase the percentage of our vendor dollars spent with Black- and Hispanic/Latino-owned companies
  • Developing a resource list/library of books, podcasts, videos, etc. that shine a light on racism, and regularly choosing such books for Hager Sharp’s book club
  • Expanding our Education, Labor, and Economy practice to include work dedicated to racial justice and other forms of social justice
  • Expanding the work in our Health practice to tackle healthcare equity, access, and discrimination faced by people of color
  • Identifying and exploring opportunities to focus our existing Hager Hours program (company-paid volunteer hours for each employee, provided annually) on initiatives that directly impact local communities of color through service

Some of these actions are already completed or underway; others will begin immediately, with specific action plans developed for each. As we accomplish these actions we will expand our efforts into new areas that have an outward impact beyond our company. We are actively developing a detailed strategic plan to tackle this issue, approaching it with the same diligence and rigor with which we approach our clients’ challenges. As a company that rejects racism and stands in support of our Black employees, Black clients, and the entire Black community, we are committed to implementing these action steps so we can achieve greater diversity and true equality throughout our agency, our industry, our communities, and our country.

I am profoundly grateful for our task force and the commitment of our entire staff to this effort. We know this is a journey. As long as I am leading Hager Sharp, ensuring that we make forward progress on this journey – to achieve true inclusion, diversity, equity, and access – will be a top priority of mine. This I promise.

Jennifer Wayman, MHS
President & CEO

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