Delivering early cancer detection for everyone

Barbara D. Powe, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, Medical Director, Health Equity, GRAIL | November 18, 2021

Prevent Cancer Foundation invited GRAIL to share this piece as part of their sponsorship of the 2021 Prevent Cancer Gala.

Every day, we lose approximately 1,700 Americans to cancer, adding up to over 600,000 of our friends, family and loved ones every year. While recent years have brought forward many advancements in the fight against cancer,  it still remains the second leading cause of death in the United States. One of the greatest lessons we’ve learned is that catching cancer early can help save lives. We know that cancers that are found in early stages have better outcomes after five years than those that are found in later stages. 

Yet, today in the U.S., we only have available recommended screenings for five types of cancers (breast, cervical, colorectal, high-risk lung, and prostate). Over 70% of cancer deaths are caused by cancers with no recommended screening.

People of color suffer more than other communities from our inability to catch most cancers early. Cancers that do not have recommended screenings are more likely to be found late for individuals who are Black, Hispanic or American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), compared to non-Hispanic white (NHW) individuals. This fact contributes to overall worse outcomes across all cancers for people of color. For example, Black Americans have higher cancer death rates than any other racial group and cancer is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans and Hispanics.

As the Medical Director, Health Equity at GRAIL, LLC, I am focused every day on improving screening options for everyone, but particularly for those who have historically been underserved by our health care system. We are excited about new technologies called multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests that will give us all the opportunity catch many more cancers earlier. MCED tests use a blood sample to identify dozens of cancers, including many that we haven’t been able to routinely screen for, including pancreatic, ovarian and stomach cancers, among others. MCED tests also don’t require complex health care infrastructure, like dedicated clinics or specialty health care providers, which make them more accessible for many who face barriers to accessing health services.

MCED tests, which can be utilized alongside existing screenings, are poised to change how we think about cancer detection altogether. In fact, a recent report shows that extending benefits of early detection to more types of cancer and to more people could play a significant role in reducing the risk of poor outcomes for cancer patients, particularly minority patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recent social justice movements, have placed a spotlight on the health disparities that exist in the U.S. and the important role of the social determinants of health. Leadership efforts from organizations like the Prevent Cancer Foundation are absolutely essential to advancing the promise of technologies like MCED for cancer patients. We are grateful for our partnership and more hopeful every day for a future in which cancer is caught early.

Learn more about multi-cancer early detection

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