Novartis' More Than Words campaign tackles breast cancer inequities in screening, treatment and care

Novartis' U.S. head of diversity and inclusion understands the importance of Novartis' new awareness campaign from personal experience. 

As a young boy growing up in Texas, Marion Brooks saw his mother diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy. Now, almost 40 years later, his mom is alive and well, counting her blessings at age 75.

However, she and Brooks know that other African American women aren’t as fortunate. Among women diagnosed with breast cancer, Black women are 40% more likely to die.

Brooks' mother had a key advantage that enhanced her chance for survival. Her own mother worked as a lab tech at a hospital and helped her establish an annual screening ritual. Once Marion Brooks' mother was diagnosed, she didn't hesitate to undergo the prescribed treatment.

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“A big component was the partnership and trust,” said Brooks, who's Novartis vice president and U.S. head of diversity and inclusion. “Black women don’t always have those relationships in place. They don’t feel heard when they’re talking to their doctors.” 

Brooks is the spokesperson for Novartis' new More Than Just Words campaign to address those racial disparities in screening, treatment and care. Novartis is enlisting breast cancer and health policy experts to identify the most pressing issues facing Black women in breast cancer and work together to find solutions.  

Black women face racial disparities in U.S. healthcare across a wide array of diseases, but few are as pronounced as breast cancer. For example, Black women under the age of 35 are diagnosed with breast cancer at twice the rate of white women of the same age. Fatalities are more likely, because Black women tend to be diagnosed at a later stage and with a more aggressive form of the disease.

In 1981, the breast cancer mortality rate was the same for Black and white women.  Improvements in detection and treatment have helped many more women survive the disease, but the advancements benefited white women more than Black women.

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"We all know we have historical gaps as far as access and equity when it comes to health care," Brooks said. "Novartis said, 'What can we do as an organization to close some of those gaps?' "

Two recent events brought urgency to Novartis’ push. In 2020, breast cancer surpassed lung cancer as the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer, while the coronavirus pandemic drastically reduced breast exam screenings. 

“When you have those two components—and we already know that there is a gap in treatment as well as access for women of color—it’s going to hit that community even harder,” Brooks, a 21-year Novartis veteran, said. “Right now we need to provide additional education and information, build more trust and increase access. I think we’re at a critical pivot point where we can actually help to close some of those gaps.”

To help get the word out, Novartis enlisted industry experts who are in tune with the issue to join the team and to speak out in its social media effort. Among them is Jamil Rivers, a metastatic breast cancer patient and CEO of The Chrysalis Initiative, which helps Black women and other minority breast cancer patients receive equal access to treatment.

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Another adviser is Ricki Fairley, CEO of TOUCH, The Black Breast Cancer Alliance. Also on the team is Monique Gary, medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer Program in Pennsylvania.

“Unfortunately, Black women already experience later detection and delayed diagnoses, resulting in fewer care options and harder-to-treat disease for our patients. It is critical to act now to broaden awareness and change these statistics," Gary said in a press release.

While the new campaign is unbranded, Novartis' oncology portfolio includes breast cancer drugs including Kisqali, Piqray and Afinitor.