Catalysts for change: Honoring Black icons and their impact on cancer prevention

As we recognize Black History Month, it’s important to reflect upon and highlight some of the Black leaders who have impacted cancer prevention and advocacy efforts. We honor these Black pioneers who have significantly contributed, and continue to contribute, to a world where cancer is preventable, detectable and beatable for all.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (Courtesy of Word in Black)

Her name might ring a bell—or perhaps you’ve only heard of the “immortal cells,” HeLa cells, which came from Lacks and revolutionized medical and cancer research.

In 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for discomfort around her uterus. John Hopkins was, at the time, one of the few hospitals that offered care for Black patients. After a biopsy, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and promptly began radiation treatment, which involved inserting radium tubes into her cervix to kill cancer cells. During her treatment, samples of her healthy and cancerous cells were taken without her consent—though at the time this was considered normal practice with Black patients.

Researcher George Otto Gey eventually obtained those samples for further examination and discovered how remarkable her cells were. They had the ability to continuously reproduce without dying—a discovery that has resulted in countless research breakthroughs.

HeLa cells have contributed toward the identification of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which in turn led to the development of the HPV vaccine. HPV vaccination protects against the types of HPV most likely to cause cancer, and vaccination against HPV significantly reduces the risk of at least six types of cancer, including cervical cancer. Cancer therapy drugs have also been made possible thanks to HeLa cells, including drugs to treat cancers such as ovarian, lung and cervical cancers. Researchers around the world continue to study and examine Lacks’ cells today.

Henrietta Lacks died at age 31 without knowing that her cells were taken, nor what studies were being conducted with them.

It’s important to note that her contribution to cancer research and prevention was not a choice—she was simply a woman wanting a checkup. We honor her legacy in revolutionizing medicine by increasing patient protections and ensuring medical professionals are held to high ethical standards.

Dr. Harold Freeman

Dr. Harold Freeman (Courtesy of Zeto Journal)

Dr. Freeman is perhaps best known as the “Father of Patient Navigation.” He jumpstarted his career as surgical oncologist at Harlem’s Hospital Center in 1968 where, during his tenure, he observed that most of his cancer patients had advanced forms of the disease. Why were his patients—the majority of whom were poor and Black—seeking treatment at such late stages?

Freeman was quick to realize the connections between race, poverty and cancer. Black people in Harlem weren’t just suffering from cancer—they were simultaneously suffering from poverty. They were unable to obtain care in a timely manner, which was causing significantly worse survival rates for Black people in Harlem than their white counterparts.

Freeman was noticing the social determinants of health (factors that directly influence health outcomes) like socioeconomic status, education and reliable transportation, were burdening the Black community in Harlem. He developed a patient navigation program in 1990 to combat barriers that were delaying timely health care, thus increasing cancer screenings and leading to earlier diagnoses and treatments.

Our motto at Prevent Cancer Foundation, Early Detection = Better Outcomes, is something Dr. Harold Freeman understood deeply. His advocacy for health equity and passion for saving lives through early detection has forever changed how we look at cancer screening and accessibility.

Want to learn more about patient navigation? Check out the Foundation’s upcoming Advocacy Workshop and Prevent Cancer Dialogue sessions on patient navigation and cancer screening.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama (Courtesy of Share America)

As the first African American First Lady, Michelle Obama spent her years in the White House focused on advocating for exercise and healthier eating habits. Through her program, “Let’s Move,” Obama’s objective was to improve the health of our nation’s children by implementing initiatives on healthy eating and physical activity, both of which can reduce your risk of cancer.

Obama also emphasized the importance of women taking charge of their health, encouraging women to get their routine breast cancer screenings and using her platform to bring light to the importance of adequate health care coverage for people—allowing them to take charge of their health and well-being.

Obama understood the importance of a lifestyle that incorporates both healthy eating habits and physical activity. This balance aids in reducing risk for diseases, such as cancer, and improves one’s overall health. Her efforts have helped shift the focus from a treatment-based approach into one that prioritizes preventive action.

Interested in how to eat healthier? Get started by checking out this blog on how to choose healthy options at the grocery store.

Al Roker

Al Roker (Courtesy of Marion Meakem Photography)

In March 2020, America’s adored weatherman and news anchor Al Roker gave more than just the usual weather report on NBC’s the “TODAY” show. Roker got personal with viewers, sharing his recent diagnosis of an aggressive form of prostate cancer. His cancer was discovered by a routine screening with a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test during his regular checkup.

Roker told viewers that, faced with the overwhelming stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had contemplated delaying his screening. His decision to check his health and get screened led to early detection of his cancer, giving him the best chance at better outcomes. Now, Roker uses his platform to inform and motivate men to get screened for prostate cancer. He emphasizes this message for Black men, who are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer compared to other racial groups.

We value Roker’s positive attitude, honesty and openness regarding his cancer journey, and are grateful that he is helping Black men feel seen and motivating this high-risk group to get screened. It’s no doubt that Roker was the best candidate for the 2023 Congressional Families Distinguished Service in Journalism Award for using his platform to make a difference in cancer prevention and early detection.


The collective efforts of these four Black individuals have been invaluable in the fight for a world where cancer is preventable, detectable and beatable for all. Henrietta Lacks, Harold Freeman, Michelle Obama and Al Roker have made an everlasting impact on public health. We acknowledge and appreciate their contributions this Black History month and year-round.