May 25, 2023
Megha Ramaswamy, PhD, MPH, associate director for cancer workforce equity at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, and professor of population health in KU School of Medicine, is lead author on a commentary published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) addressing the issue of cancer equity for people who have been impacted by mass incarceration.
People in North America with incarceration histories have 10 times the risk for liver cancer, five times the risk for cervical cancer and three times the risk for lung cancer as do people without such histories. Cancer is a leading cause of mortality for people who are incarcerated as well as for people recently released from jails and prisons, with higher cancer-related death rates than people with no incarceration history. The commentary also sets forth a plan for action to reduce these inequities.
“Cancer disparities among people with incarceration histories have persisted for decades, with so little work to address those disparities,” Ramaswamy said. “I thought it was important to pull together the few people in the field working on this issue to set an agenda for addressing the national problem of cancer disparities in the context of mass incarceration.”
Prisons and jails have a court-obligated duty to provide medical care, but the level of care they have to provide is minimal. It also is subject to legal interpretation and varies significantly across institutions for a number of reasons.
The plan outlined in the commentary to bolster cancer equity among people who have been incarcerated includes considering compassionate release for late-stage cancer patients; linking carceral health systems with public and community health systems; expanding access to insurance after incarceration; prioritizing better cancer prevention, screening and treatment services in these settings; educating health professionals about incarceration and its effect on health; and using prisons and jails for health promotion and transition to community care.
Ramaswamy, a nationally recognized researcher and educator on the health of incarcerated people, is also the principal investigator for the Sexual Health Empowerment Project, the only longitudinal grant-funded intervention in the country that addresses cancer risk for people involved in the criminal legal system.
“It’s time for a call to action for the field,” said Ramaswamy. “This is a chance for The University of Kansas Cancer Center to lead a cancer prevention effort with other scientists all over the country.”
This article originally appeared on the University of Kansas Medical Center's website.