VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center’s new designation driven by the community, by Dr. Robert A. Winn

9/21/2023, 6 p.m.
Building engines for General Motors was going to be my one-way ticket to the other side of the tracks. Growing …

Building engines for General Motors was going to be my one-way ticket to the other side of the tracks. Growing up, I dreamt of getting that job at the plant in my working class Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood, earning a steady paycheck and setting myself up for life.

It didn’t even occur to me to look beyond the borders of familiarity because I had no idea how I would get there. Eventually higher

education came into play and medicine found me. But I’m still one part M.D. and one part M.C., connected to that kid down the block who knew there was something bigger out there, even if it seemed out of reach.

I followed my North Star to Richmond in December 2019 when I became the director of what is now VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center, an institution only 50 or so miles from my grandmother’s Middle Peninsula hometown. Hearing her tell stories, I came to recognize early on how segregation shaped her and how the experiences she shared during my rearing would shape me. While a divide dictated where Black people could go during the era, commonality and unconditional belonging enveloped them once they arrived at their destination. They developed a strong sense of community, one that still is apparent in many of our underserved populations today.

Massey is determined to give even greater meaning to our new National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive designation for the people living in our catchment. If health equity is the bullseye, comprehensive is the arrow about to land within it.

Systems that were developed during my grandmother’s upbringing and decades before led to the disparities we see in the three lowest localities in the Robert Wood Johnson 2023 County Health Rankings, which are all located in Massey’s service area. Elsewhere in Virginia, the mortality rates of lung and colorectal cancer are higher in our rural communities, 22% and 40% respectively, versus our urban communities. African-American women have a 45% higher breast cancer burden, compared to white women. The prostate cancer mortality rate in African-American men is 153% greater than in white men. It will not always be this way. Hold me to that statement.

The NCI determined that Massey is making strides in research, community outreach and engagement and in the training of health care’s next generation. Now, what we do with the accolades and the distinction matters. At Massey, our center serves as the inter section of science and society, and members of the community drive it. We refuse to have the same conversation in 10 years, five years, two years that we are having today. To do that, we must give all people representa- tion at the research bench. Speak “with” instead of “at” them and move away from the alphabet soup of science that defined us until this point.

Like the kid in Buffalo I once was, people in disenfranchised communities often do not look beyond their walls because they don’t know what is outside and how to access it. With Massey’s community-to-bench model, we are flipping the idea of social determinants to social drivers of health. Instead of keeping much of our research inside the laboratory, we meet individuals where they are to involve them in the design, implementation, evaluation and dissemination. It also allows for the development of clinical trials to serve specific needs and a more diverse enrollment. We are confident this model will help us to refine our scientific questions in order to have a greater impact on overall health, which is what we all want at the end of the day.

I am the first Black man to lead a cancer center to comprehensive status in the United States, and that responsibility is not lost on me. Getting here is the first step. Ensuring all people feel unconditional belonging outside their comfort zone is the next. The true work begins now. Like rapper RZA of Wu-Tang Clan said, I know “it’s harder to make the glass than break the glass.” But I always was and always will be up for the challenge.

I know you are, too. Together, we can look the fight against cancer in the eye and say we are ready to give it all we have. Learn about prevention and screening and have some fun along the way at the Massey Comprehensive Carnival on Saturday, Sept. 23 from 1 to 4p.m. at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. Stop by for free food, beverages, games and entertainment for the whole family. You can park for free in the deck across the street or ride the GRTC Pulse, so no excuses! We want to see you there. Massey is the community’s cancer center, your cancer center. We are honored to have you as boots on the ground in this cancer battle.

Robert A. Winn, M.D., is director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. In his former life, Dr. Winn was a music producer, having once worked with creatives such as Mos Def.