Student Op-Ed: End Racial Disparity in Breast Cancer Mortality

M1 Tecora Turner's op-ed called for change to address disparity in breast cancer outcomes for Black women

For a second straight day, a first-year Pritzker student pushed for change in the opinion pages of the Chicago Tribune. In an op-ed published Tuesday, Tecora Turner put a spotlight on the disproportionate mortality rate facing Black women with breast cancer and called for more equitable access to care and changes to screening practices.

Turner, who is vice president of the Student National Medical Association chapter at Pritzker, wrote the op-ed as her final assignment for the first-year “The American Healthcare System” course, directed by Dr. V. Ram Krishnamoorthi and Dr. Greg W. Ruhnke. After a handful of edits, she submitted it for publication at the Tribune, just as classmates and fellow M1s Tony Liu and Christian Carrier had. Carrier’s op-ed challenging the FDA’s blood donor policy ran on Monday, and Liu’s op-ed on the youth mental health crisis ran in December. 

Drawing on her personal experiences with breast cancer—her aunt and grandmother were both diagnosed, with her grandmother dying one week later—Turner called attention to the fact that despite similar incidence rates Black women in the U.S. face a 42% higher mortality rate. Bringing a local focus to the issue, Turner cited a 2006 study showing Black women in Chicago were 68% more likely than white women to die from breast cancer, a figure worse than the national average.

"My personal family experience with breast cancer as well as my desire to advocate for Black women with my platform were the main motivators behind writing this piece," Turner said "I'm really interested in women’s health issues, and I want to make sure that racial health disparities are being discussed more broadly so that they can be addressed."

While acknowledging increased efforts to address racial disparity in breast cancer outcomes, Turner also highlighted obstacles that persist, leading to a mortality rate among Black women that is still 39% higher than that of white women. With breast cancer mortality rates disproportionately impacting women on Chicago’s South and West sides, the op-ed notes, women without insurance or in medically underserved areas do not have equitable access to care.

"The distribution of disease burden in Chicago is as unequal as the city’s allocation of resources," Turner wrote. "Years of racist policies have led to limited health care options in minority neighborhoods."

But even guaranteeing insurance coverage, Turner argued, does not guarantee equal access to quality care. Turner noted that of Chicago’s 12 hospitals with an American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer Center designation, only two are on the South Side. She called on legislators to address the unequal distribution of resources in Chicago, requiring all safety net hospitals have American College of Surgeons accreditation and proper funding to deliver standard-of-care screening and treatment.

Turner also called on clinicians to assess and eradicate their own implicit bias that could lead to lesser quality of care for Black women. 

"As always, Black women deserve better, and now I am demanding it," Turner wrote in the closing of her op-ed.

Krishnamoorthi and Ruhnke's course for the first time this year allowed students to choose the format of their final assignment. After Dr. Shikha Jain from the University of Illinois at Chicago led an op-ed workshop at Pritzker on an invitation from Krishnamoorthi and student leaders from the Health Policy Interest Group, most students in the course chose to submit op-eds. 

"I have always really liked writing passionate pieces, but I have never had the guidance or the courage to submit my work to a broader audience until after the encouragement I received from Dr. Krishnamoorthi’s final lecture," Turner said. "He talked at length about how powerful our voices can be through various types of advocacy, especially op-ed writing.

"I always thought that I had to wait until I was officially a doctor to begin my advocacy efforts and have a voice that people would want to listen to, but now I know that I have a voice that needs to be heard, even as a medical student."