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Demopolis native fights cancer

Demopolis native Dr. Ed Partridge is a professor and vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but it is his focus on cancer treatment that has gained him the most respect.

Partridge is the leader of the Minority Health and Research Center at UAB, an organization that provides cancer education to minority and underserved people. It also works with organizations, institutions and community leaders to establish trust and mutual partnerships for research in minority and underserved populations.

“We started a project in 1992 that got funded by the National Cancer Institute to work with primary-care physicians in the Black Belt area to link newly-diagnosed cancer patients with cancer specialists, either referring them to the specialists or discussing the case with the specialists, and then treating them at home,” Partridge said.

“The reason I was chosen to lead that project is because I was from that area. I knew a lot of the physicians down there. Then, about the mid-’90s is when the nation began to recognize that we had substantial cancer disparities, and that among people who were poor or under-educated — white or black — had much-increased mortality rates from cancer. That was mainly because they were late in diagnosis, sometimes undertreated, and had lack of access or lack of knowledge, transportation issues — all of the things that go with lower socio-economic status.”

The cancer center thought that the best outreach program would involve people from within the community, so it set up a program to train people in the Black Belt to be able to go out and educate others about cancer and treatments.

“Our concept was that if we took volunteers from the African-American community and trained them to promote cancer awareness in their communities, that we could increase appropriate screening rates for cancer in the communities,” he said. “We focused on breast cancer and cervical cancer because we knew that mammography screening for breast cancer did reduce mortality, and the same for cervical cancer with Pap smears.”

Julia Haskin Foster was one of those volunteers who wanted to help others learn more about cancer and what they could do to treat it.

Haskin considered herself a perfect volunteer because in 1995, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“They ended up saving the breast,” she said. “I had radiation and chemotherapy. I had surgery, and then seven weeks of radiation. My daughter has a friend who works in the cancer program, and since I was a cancer survivor and I had such a positive attitude for cancer, there were people waiting out in the waiting room asking me, ‘Ma’am, why are you so optimistic about things?’

“We still have black women who have a lot of superstitions, but I think that, with the new generations coming on, things are going to get better, with all of the information that is getting out now. I spoke to a group in Greene County, and every time I said the word ‘breast,’ I saw a lady just cringe. You still have people like that, but thankfully, this younger generation will be more knowledgeable about these problems.”

Through the help of the Deep South Network and the REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) program, people in rural areas are not only learning more about cancer, but understanding that it isn’t necessarily a death sentence, if treated quickly.

“We’ve actually seen some significant improvement,” Partridge said. “In the Medicare population, those 65 and older, we have really good data that shows that before our program started in 2000, the disparities in mammography screenings between the white and the black population in our Black Belt counties was 17 percent. That is, 17 percent more white women received annual mammograms than black women, all 65 and over and all with Medicare.

“After our program, it was reduced to 6 percent; that was two years ago. Our latest data that has just come out has it down to 1 percent. One of our counties actually had a reversal of disparities, where black women were getting more mammograms than the white women.”

Partridge added that the message to be learned now is that, through good nutrition and physical activity, people can combat obesity, which in itself produces cancer as well as several other health programs. Partridge said that cancers caused by poor nutrition and lack of physical activity is starting to rival the number of cancers caused by tobacco products.

Education and understanding is the key to combating cancer. The more people learn about cancer, the better they will be able to fight it, and eventually, overcome it.