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KU Cancer Center uses art to reach underprivileged communities

Sometimes the best way to reach out to a community is through art.

That’s the idea behind the new University of Kansas Cancer Center mural painted by artist Vania Soto on the side of the middle school at Guadalupe Centers in Kansas City, Missouri. The mural is a portrait of four cancer survivors and co-survivors, all people from disadvantaged populations, with the words “Clinical Research Needs Representation” painted underneath.

“Using the murals as a way of telling stories is really powerful because it’s not just a billboard, it’s literally me putting down every single coat of paint to tell the story,” said Soto, who is nearly finished painting the mural. “The impact is only greater outside this community because it’s handmade, so it gives more passion and more awareness of the importance of the message.”

A national and local problem

The mural, designed in collaboration with members of surrounding urban community organizations, is a part of KU Cancer Center’s broader campaign to increase the participation of minority and underprivileged populations in clinical trials. Minorities disproportionately suffer from cancer but are underrepresented in these studies. Recent analyzes of cancer therapeutic studies found that only 4%-6% of study participants are Black and 3%-6% are Hispanic, despite accounting for 15% and 13% of people with cancer, respectively, according to a July 2022 article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Meanwhile, the area served by KU Cancer Center, which is the entire state of Kansas and 18 counties in western Missouri, is becoming more diverse. In Wyandotte County, Kansas, 29% of the population is Latino.

Greater diversity in clinical trials not only helps ensure that new cancer treatments are effective for all people, but also that all people have access to new and promising treatments available only through those trials.

“The underrepresentation of certain patient populations in clinical trials is a national problem, and it’s a problem we have locally as well,” said Ronald Chen, MD, MPH, associate director of health equity at KU Cancer Center. “The mural shows representation, and that’s what we want to see reflected in the evidence. We know that patients enrolled in clinical trials often have better outcomes than all cancer patients, and we want to make sure patients understand that this may be an option for them.”

A message of hope

KU Cancer Center and the Masonic Cancer Alliance, the outreach arm of the cancer center, partnered with Tico Productions, LLC, a minority-owned multilingual marketing agency, in Spring 2022 to educate the Kansas City community and raise awareness of the importance of participation in clinical trials. After conducting focus groups and publishing a community survey, the team sought to debunk myths about clinical trials through bilingual social media posts, YouTube videos, billboards, and radio and TV ads across multiple stations. They also booked advertisements in publications in Hispanic and Black communities.

Artist Vania Soto paints the mural on the side of the Guadalupe Centers middle school in Kansas City, Missouri.

Soto, who was born in Juarez, Mexico, and has ties to the local Hispanic community, had painted a dozen murals in the Kansas City area before being hired to paint the clinical trials mural.

The four people depicted in the mural had also participated in the KU Cancer Center’s campaign to encourage minority participation in cancer trials. They include breast cancer survivor Kim Jones, a member of KU Cancer Center’s patient research advocacy program known as PIVOT, which offers cancer survivors, co-survivors, and researchers the opportunity to work together to design cancer research.

“I think [seeing the mural] it will give people the feeling and the thought that we are changing things, we have been included, we are coming to the roundtable,” Jones said. “This is a sign of hope and change.”

Soto also sees the mural as an expression of hope. “People have asked me if this is a memorial to people who have died from cancer, and I say no, it’s actually a celebration of life because they’ve been through it and recovered,” Soto said. “So, it’s a different kind of message of hope in a different way, celebrating people who’ve been through cancer.”

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