Dialogue Backstage Pass: VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Dr. Robert Winn

Dr. Robert Winn is speaking on May 24, 2023, at the Prevent Cancer Dialogue, “Addressing Community-Level Disparities in Cancer Prevention,” the first of two Dialogue summits. Register today to catch him live at this event, and don’t forget to register for summit 2 on June 28.

Dr. Winn is the Director and Lipman Chair in Oncology at VCU Massey Cancer Center. He was recognized for his contributions in 2022 with the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Prevention and Early Detection Laurels Award for Increasing Health Equity.


When you talk to Robert A. Winn, M.D., about health equity, his passion is clear—because he’s been there. After growing up in a medically underserved community, Dr. Winn dedicated his career to being a tireless advocate of community-engaged approaches to eliminating health disparities.

We talked to Dr. Winn about his work advancing health equity and how community-focused efforts can address health disparities and improve cancer screening and prevention.


Q: Why are you personally invested and committed to advancing health equity? 

A: I’m committed and invested because I’ve been there. I’ve walked in the shoes that too many others are still walking in today. My mother was 15 years old when she had me, and I was largely raised by my grandparents in a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. While I grew up rich with support and guidance, I was a “have not” in many more ways. But why was it that way? And why is it still that way today? Health care, in general, and cancer treatments, are basic human rights. Everyone needs access to the means to live healthy lives. The side of the railroad tracks that you live on should not determine whether you screen for cancer early and beat it or die from an advanced stage disease because you did not have the money or the transportation to get the test. I will never stop my work to advance health equity. It has been an issue for far too long. 


Q: Why is a community-centric approach to health disparities important? How is this different from what we’ve done in the past?

A: Picture yourself as a single parent with two children barely getting by on one or two low-paying jobs. The landlord is knocking for the rent payment, the power company is about to shut off the service, and the kids are going through growth spurts, hungry all the time. How can we expect that same parent to wake up one day, ignore the challenges around them and say, “I think today is going to be the day that I take the bus to that cancer center I’ve heard of to get some information about what age I need to start getting mammograms.” Not going to happen.

We absolutely cannot wait for people to come to us because they will not. We need to take resources to where they live, work, play and pray. Meet them where they are. This approach is different because it allows the people we serve to guide the conversation, guide the research and ultimately have a voice they may have never had before in health care. It infuses their ideas and their needs into everything we do. The key to improving and saving lives is talking with people as human beings instead of as clinicians. Oftentimes, these conversations are best had where the individuals are most comfortable, in their own communities. 


Q: What strategies (including patient navigation) can play a role, and how do we need to think about them?

A: I think back to when I was a kid in Buffalo who was bussed to a school in what the city considered to be a better neighborhood than my own. Was the education good? Absolutely. However, the true understanding of my personal circumstances was missing during the eight hours I spent learning science, math and history. It is why I often make the comparison that it doesn’t matter how high-tech we are in medicine if we are not high-touch, which is human connection.

Representation matters, and I am not just referring to having someone who looks like you when you are going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment (although that can also be important). I am determined to hire from communities, for communities. I don’t discount that there are well-intentioned individuals who want to help and do a great job of it every day. But we also need a more diverse workforce that reflects the day-to-day experiences of the individuals we serve.  


Q: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Dialogue? 

A: While talking about what needs to happen is powerful, hearing those concrete examples of the work in action is going to take this year’s Dialogue to another level! At the core of all our individual efforts is the idea that we need to build trust when engaging with traditionally underserved communities. But I also remind myself each day to ask, “What are we doing to make ourselves trustworthy?” It is a two-way conversation. People see through education programs that go into their neighborhoods for, in the grand scheme of things, only a few minutes and expect to win everyone over with all their ‘do this’ and ‘do that’s. Building trust takes time and investment and plenty of face-to-face conversations. What are we doing to make ourselves trustworthy? Letting people know their communities are worthy of our time. Place and space matter. People in the place and space matter, too.


Don’t miss Dr. Winn’s presentation at Summit 1 of the 
2023 Prevent Cancer Dialogue:

Addressing Community Level Disparities in Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

Register today 

May 24, 2023