Student’s internship examines Milwaukee cancer disparities

Pre-med student Maya Matabele shares information regarding prostate cancer with a community member during the Keenan Health Center Community Health Fair. Photo courtesy of Maya Matabele.

Across the board, African Americans die from cancer at 25 percent higher rate than whites, and are generally more likely to have higher mortality rates than whites for every type of cancer. Looking at just prostate cancer, black men are more than twice as likely to die after a diagnosis than white men.

These disparities are sobering, and Maya Matabele is determined to do what she can to change them. Matabele is a Biochemistry major on the pre-med track. She spent her summer interning at the Medical College of Wisconsin through the Community Health Internship Program (CHIP) run by the Wisconsin Area Health Education Centers, and her job was to study and track the racial disparities among cancer diagnoses.

“The Cancer Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin is a great space,” Matabele said. “My internship was under Dr. Melinda Stolley. She focuses on underrepresented populations in Milwaukee. I was looking at prostate cancer in African American men, and adapting lifestyle intervention – once men receive a diagnosis, how are they coping with the [subsequent] lifestyle changes?

“It’s been amazing,” she added. “I loved the team I worked with. Their passion and dedication to Milwaukee’s community and southeastern Wisconsin in general is extraordinary and evident in their work.”

Maya Matabele talks with Bevan Baker, Commissioner of Health for the City of Milwaukee, during her internship. Photo courtesy of Maya Matabele.

Researching disparities among different racial communities is time-consuming and labor-intensive. In addition to seeking out journal articles and materials detailing others’ research into the problems, she and the MCW team hit the Milwaukee pavement, traveling to community clinics and health fairs to recruit black men to join in MCW studies and to spread the word about cancer screening and prevention.

It’s hard to attribute these disparities to one particular cause, Matabele said. MCW focuses on three possible modalities. No. 1 is cellular – is there a genetic or biological component to account for the difference in cancer mortality rates among different racial groups? No. 2 is clinical – do certain groups have trouble accessing adequate care? And No. 3 looks at community – do community attitudes or lack of resources contribute?

It’s hard to say because there’s been very little research into these differences, which was one reason that Matabele was so eager to work with MCW.

But she had some other motivation too – interning at the Medical College has exposed her to a new and fascinating world. In addition to her cancer research, Matabele and her fellow interns were treated to hours of seminars every day covering all sorts of topics related to cancer. She accompanied physicians on their rounds to meet with patients and regularly met with other CHIP interns to talk about public health and policy.

The experience was invaluable for Matabele.

“My knowledge of cancer prior to this internship was limited, yet within two months I felt like I had a much stronger foundation. Even though cancer is a broad topic, … to learn about the cancer disparities has been really interesting,” she said. “And seeing all of these women physicians (that I worked with) has been really empowering.”

Matabele is on-track to graduate in the spring of 2018. She hopes to attend medical school to pursue a dual medical doctorate/Masters of Public Health and is thinking about entering family medicine when she becomes a physician herself. At the heart of her future plans is a desire to help the people she interacted with this summer – those whose health is most at risk.

“One of the difficult things about this internship was seeing how severe these cancer
disparities are in my community and in Milwaukee. It’s disheartening to see that it’s mainly in urban areas. It makes you question why and what’s being done as well as what’s not being done,” Matabele said. “That being said, it has been tough, but it makes me more impassioned. It’s my responsibility to not only recognize and evaluate these disparities, but contribute to the effort to find solutions in any way that I can.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science