First Lady Jill Biden visited UT Health San Antonio’s Mays Cancer Center Wednesday for a tour and discussion about health disparities in the Latino community related to cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The visit comes after the Biden administration announced the restart of the Cancer Moonshot initiative earlier this month. 

“We’re trying to end cancer as we know it, and I think we can do it,” the first lady said.

Biden was accompanied Wednesday by Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, and met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Dr. Ruben Mesa, executive director of the Mays Cancer Center; and Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio. Together, the group toured and visited the facility’s infusion center, where patients undergo cancer treatment and clinical trials.

At the South Texas Medical Center facility affiliated with the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Biden heard from UT Health San Antonio officials and Jeanette Sanchez, a community health worker at the hospital, about how cancer patients are cared for. 

Sanchez told the first lady that the pandemic had caused some women to put off cancer screenings like mammograms, so University Health deployed mobile screening labs to bring care to their patients directly. Of 25 women who were screened for cancer at the mobile screening labs, five received abnormal test results, according to Sanchez.

Patients at the center shared their stories with the first lady, with one breast cancer survivor, Cynthia Orr, saying she was distraught when she learned other breast cancer patients who developed lymphedema, a common complication after breast cancer treatment, couldn’t afford compression wraps to treat the condition.

Following the tour, the first lady, Sharpless, Mesa and Nirenberg participated in a roundtable discussion with local and worldwide health experts who specialize in addressing health disparities affecting cancer diagnosis and treatment among Latinos. 

“Cancer, I think, touches every single one of us, but it doesn’t affect every community in the same way,” Biden said. “That’s why, as a part of the Cancer Moonshot, I’m glad to learn today what we’re doing for the Latino community and what we will continue to do and what you all are doing.” 

The first lady said she and the president will continue having conversations with the Latino and indigenous communities, as well as other underserved communities. 

“We can do better,” she said. “That’s our mission.”

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden discusses cancer health disparities in the Latino community with cancer researchers and advocates as part of the Biden-Harris administration's Cancer Moonshot initiative at the Mays Cancer Center Wednesday February 23, 2022.
First Lady Jill Biden discusses cancer health disparities in the Latino community with researchers and advocates at the Mays Cancer Center Wednesday as part of the Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Biden heard from an array of cancer specialists, including Amelie Ramirez, a UT Health San Antonio professor and associate director of Community Outreach and Engagement at the Mays Cancer Center. She explained that the Latino population represents 18% of the U.S. population and that within a few decades, one in every four individuals will be Latino. 

“Cancer has become the leading cause of death in our community,” said Ramirez, adding that cancer in that group is expected to increase by 132% over the next decade. 

Cancers diagnosed within the Latino community include liver cancer at twice the rate compared to other populations as well as stomach cancers, according to Ramirez. Breast and prostate cancer, however, are found in lower rates in the Latino population, but survival outcomes are not as good, she said. 

“We truly have to do something,” Ramirez said.

Dr. Barbara Segarra-Vazquez, a professor of clinical and translational health education research at the University of Puerto Rico who is a cancer survivor herself, pointed out the lack of Latino patient advocates, adding that patients need education, emotional support and resources to help them deal with the stress and grief that accompany the disease. 

“Most of all, they need to be acknowledged,” said Segarra-Vazquez. 

Nirenberg pointed to the challenges that come from the high numbers of Texas and San Antonio residents without health insurance. 

“Those correlate so well with our high poverty …,” he said. “We are as a community trying to attack poverty from a number of different angles.”

Nirenberg said resources to improve health care access for those populations are important to the city of San Antonio, so low-income and uninsured residents can undergo cancer screenings. 

In relaunching the Cancer Moonshot, President Joe Biden added new goals to the original mission, which was first announced in 2016 when he was vice president. He has called for reducing death rates from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years and improving the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer.

Wednesday’s event was part of UT Health San Antonio’s conference on cancer among Latinos, which continues through Friday. 

As part of her visit Wednesday, Jill Biden also visited Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland afterward, where she toured the Child Development Center and hosted a listening session in support of military children with disabilities. 

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. William Henrich’s name.

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.