An estimated 600,000 Americans will die of cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. But why some will survive and others won’t is not always determined by the disease alone.

A college education, for instance – and all of the economic and health care benefits that typically come with it – can make an enormous difference, according to Otis Brawley, an international expert in cancer prevention and control.

“More than one-in-five cancers would go away if everybody had what college educated Americans have,” Brawley said in a lecture last year at Emory University. “This is just giving people what we already know exists, the whole spectrum: prevention, diagnosis and screening, as well as treatment.”

Brawley, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, will discuss disparities in how cancer is prevented, diagnosed, and treated in a talk titled, “Cancer Control in the 21st Century with Special Attention to Disparities in Health.” The talk, at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 9, is the first in the 2021-22 season of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The series is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognized the importance of bringing leading-edge scientists to Roanoke.

Attendees must register online in advance to attend the lecture in person in the auditorium at 2 Riverside Circle on the research institute’s Roanoke campus. Attendees will follow strict public health guidelines. The lecture will also be streamed virtually via Zoom and on the research institute’s website. 

“Dr. Brawley is a leading voice on cancer prevention and control and an effective and highly respected advocate for addressing asymmetries in how the disease and survival of it vary by race, income, and other factors,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president of health sciences and technology. “At a time when our national discourse is directly confronting racial and social inequities and when the pandemic has unmasked disparities in health care and access to it, we’re extremely fortunate to have Dr. Brawley share his perspective and bring his expertise on health care disparities to Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.”

In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while death rates for both cancer and heart disease are declining, cancer is projected to become the most common cause of death in the U.S. in the next five to 10 years.

Brawley notes that while Black Americans have seen the greatest decline in cancer deaths over recent decades, they started from the highest point. Racial and other disparities have remained stubborn despite more people surviving cancer overall.

A lack of high-quality health care, good screening, and prevention are to blame, Brawley said.

“We have underemphasized prevention in the United States,” Brawley, who is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, said in the 2020 Emory University talk.

The top causes of cancer are smoking and being overweight – both of which are preventable, yet more prevalent among minority and low-income populations, he said.

Increasingly, disparities in cancer survival are geographic, he noted, with many states in the southeastern U.S. lagging behind much of the country in improvements to cancer survival rates.

Brawley is a fellow of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American College of Epidemiology. He won the 2019 American Medical Association Distinguished Service Award and 2018 Martin D. Abeloff Award for Excellence in Public Health and Cancer Control from the Maryland State Council of Cancer Control. He is the author of the 2012 book “How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America.”

Brawley earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. From 2007 to 2018, he served as the chief medical and scientific officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society.

For more information about the lecture series, registration to attend the lecture in-person, and how to tune in via Zoom, please visit the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s website.

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