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White Ribbon Project works with outreach network of KU Cancer Center to increase lung cancer screenings in Kansas

The Masonic Cancer Alliance community grant seeks to reduce stigma, promote screening in southeast Kansas

White ribbons made of wood laid out on a table with a slip of paper laying over the top that reads Lung Cancer Awareness, The White Ribbon Project
Now a global movement, the White Ribbon Project started in Colorado when lung cancer advocates created wooden “ribbons” to build community.

There is a false assumption that people diagnosed with lung cancer are somehow responsible for their disease. Unlike other forms of cancer, the stigma associated with lung cancer persists. However, anyone can get lung cancer, whether they have ever smoked cigarettes or not. This misunderstanding may play a part in low rates of screening for lung cancer, which is only about 5% for Americans.

The good news is lung cancer rates are falling, and that’s due in part to increased screening and lower rates of smoking. When found early, lung cancer is curable. Screenings use a computed tomography (CT) scanner and about 20 minutes. Even better, the procedure is non-invasive (no needles, cameras or dyes) and uses a very low dose of radiation. The main barrier to screenings is a lack of awareness about lung cancer, and for rural Kansans, CT scanners can be inaccessible.

The Masonic Cancer Alliance, the outreach network of The University of Kansas Cancer Center, awarded a community grant to the White Ribbon Project, a Colorado-based foundation with a mission to reduce the stigma of lung cancer while increasing awareness and screenings.

“What’s been challenging in the past is there was no standard practice for lung cancer screenings, and no way to monitor when patients are due for one,” said Ellie Brent, MPH, network manager for the Masonic Cancer Alliance.

The White Ribbon Project was established in 2020 when lung cancer advocates Pierre and Heidi Onda set out to build a more robust campaign in Colorado for Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November. A single post on a cancer survivor social media page showing a homemade wooden white “ribbon” on their front door got noticed in a big way. Soon they had so many requests for the ribbons, they started making more in their garage. Within six months, they had made and sent more than 1,000 of them around the world. Those recipients made more to send out to others — and a community of advocates and survivors was born.

Billboard with illustration of lungs and the words Over 50? Ever smoke? Screen your lungs: (620)231-9873.
Billboards on highway 69 near Pittsburg, Kansas, are helping increase
awareness of the realities of lung cancer and boosting rates of
screening for the disease.

The grant focused on increasing lung cancer screenings at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHC/SEK) in Pittsburg. The project also includes 11 other screening locations in the region. Before the initiative, the number of lung cancer screenings was 233 (2021) and 263 (2022). In the first year of the project (2023), that number increased to 618. After seeing the rise in health screenings, CHC/SEK added two additional scanners to increase capacity rather than referring patients to sites farther away. Going forward, the grant will be used to increase screenings in Kansas’ urban areas.

The community grant money can be used in a variety of ways, including printing educational materials, or hiring consultants to make process improvements and review and analyze data. CHC/SEK could also pay for providers to update their skills through continuing education credits. They also bought advertising (at the nonprofit rate) promoting lung cancer screening on billboards on three highways leading into Pittsburg.

 “The benefits of partnering with the White Ribbon Project are that the work becomes part of a national registry,” Brent said. “We can share data, receive support, and now there is momentum in creating conversations about lung cancer.”

Future funding can build on the project’s success. “We would like to build similar projects in other regions in Kansas,” Brent said. “We’d like more community partners to maximize potential across other types of cancer, too.”

Learn more about the White Ribbon Project.

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