While individuals with serious mental illness are equally likely to get cancer, they are 30% more likely to die from cancer than the general population . Disparities in cancer diagnosis, treatment and care faced by behavioral health populations remains a phenomenon that necessitates greater attention, increased awareness and action to improve the access of quality cancer care for behavioral health populations.


The CDC Cancer Conference

Earlier this year more than 800 public health professionals from local, state, territorial, federal, academic, national and community-based cancer prevention and control programs across the country convened in Atlanta, GA for the 2017 National Cancer Conference sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. The conference theme, “Visualizing the Future Through Prevention, Innovation, and Communication,” included a motivational keynote address by award-winning journalist and triple negative breast cancer survivor Joan Lunden who encouraged “all those in the medical community to find better ways to communicate with each other.” Sanjeev Arora, MD, MACP, FACG, Director and Founder of Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) also spoke, reminding attendees that “equity is as important as innovation,” that sharing solutions with abandon is critical to success, and that applying an “all teach, all learn” mentality increases access and quality.


The Cancer Conference provided an opportunity for attendees to network and form relationships to expand the role of public health in comprehensive cancer control and implement effective community interventions. The concurrent breakout sessions featured presentations that encouraged and provided examples for how cancer prevention and control programs could integrate and coordinate approaches to reducing morbidity and mortality from cancer. Of the presentations, addressing disparities across the cancer continuum was a reoccurring theme. The National Behavioral Health Network (NBHN) for Tobacco & Cancer Control continues to focus on cancer-related disparities specific to behavioral health populations beyond the conference through:

  • Establishing Communities of Practice. NBHN assists community behavioral health organizations (CBHOs) by partnering them with organizational change experts and informational resources to help implement evidence-based cancer control and prevention practices aimed towards people with behavioral health conditions.
  • Educating Clients & Staff on CDC Cancer Campaigns. NBHN conducts educational sessions with clients and staff of community behavioral health organizations across the country to raise awareness of various CDC cancer campaign resources. This year, NBHN will conduct three sessions with CBHOs in states with high rates of cancer deaths and tobacco use.
  • Connecting behavioral health organizations to Comprehensive Cancer Control (CCC). NBHN supports behavioral health organizations across the country by connecting organizations to Comprehensive Cancer Control coalitions to expand the inclusion of behavioral health populations in the cancer control community.

While individuals with mental illnesses and substance use disorders are identified as a disparate population within conversations around cancer, there remains limited conversation, representation and focus on strategies and interventions geared towards addressing the disparities faced by this population. So, what can you as a behavioral health professional do to address and mitigate the factors contributing to this increased cancer risk?

How to Get Involved

Following the conference theme, now is the time for the behavioral health community to “all teach, all learn” with their partners in the cancer control community to enhance a collaborative vision of better serving behavioral health populations. Through the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control (DCPC), Comprehensive Cancer Control (CCC) coalitions exist in all 50 states and serve to bring together people interested in preventing and controlling cancer. Each coalition creates a CCC plan to guide its activities. NBHN conducted a scan  of all CDC-funded plans to identify those that included behavioral health in their planned cancer control activities. Of the 65 plans reviewed, 21 plans were identified to include the terms “mental health” and “behavioral health,” and of those, only five briefly referenced mental health, but did not include it substantially in any objectives. The remaining 14 plans incorporated mental health, behavioral health or addiction in at least one of their plan objectives. NBHN continues to work closely with the DCPC to improve comprehensive cancer control practices and services across behavioral health organizations and health departments.

With more than 50 percent of patients with terminal cancer having at least one psychiatric disorder, the need and urgency for prioritizing behavioral health populations in cancer control conversations is now. Community behavioral health providers are critical to leading these conversations – get involved by joining The National Behavioral Health Network (NBHN) for Tobacco & Cancer Control and your local Comprehensive Cancer Control (CCC) coalitions today!

Resources to check out

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