Read Time: 3 minutes
In October 2023, Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah leaders, community partners, trainees, patients, and caregivers convened in Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. senators from the Mountain West.
The team met with senators and their staff from Huntsman Cancer Institute’s geographic area of service – Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming – highlighting longstanding work underway with patients, care providers, and community partners who are working together to address the cancer burden in each state.
“Our trip to Washington, D.C. deepened our partnerships with policymakers and provided us with a platform to discuss our initiatives to alleviate the cancer burden across the Mountain West,” said Neli Ulrich, PhD, MS, chief scientific officer and executive director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “I am so grateful for everyone who traveled with us and for our senators who made time to connect with us and discuss common challenges in the Mountain West – particularly access and distance as a disparity. The insights that we gained and shared during these discussions are invaluable to our mission.”
The team brought attention to disparities faced by the 10 senators’ constituents and shared examples of collaboration across state lines. For example, Star Jones, manager of the Wyoming Department of Health’s Cancer and Chronic Disease Prevention Unit, illuminated the efforts to advance breast cancer screening in the state.
Members of the team also brought up other key issues, such as challenges in receiving treatment for those traveling interstate. Wyoming resident and patient, Diana Wiig, lent her voice to the conversations, highlighting her gratitude for having access to world class cancer care close to home via the Sweetwater Regional Cancer Center, a clinical affiliate of Huntsman Cancer Institute.
A central topic in all conversations included addressing distance as a major cancer disparity. Travel to receive screening and treatment is a familiar obstacle for nearly all Mountain West residents, with some located hundreds of miles on mountainous roads from the nearest treatment center. “The reality is Montanans will always have to travel for medical care,” said Montana resident Theresa Vonada. Vonada, an advance practice clinical, became even more familiar with these challenges when she served as primary caregiver to her husband during his cancer treatment.
Through these meetings, team members were able to gain a better understanding of cancer policy priorities in the U.S. Senate. These included increasing access to clinical trials and training opportunities in medicine and research for cancer patients. The team also highlighted the importance of funding for biomedical research, and especially the critical role of the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute in advancing cancer research discoveries that are saving lives.
“I am hopeful the Montana delegates comprehend the difficulties rural Montanans face in accessing cancer treatment. The value in this trip was putting a face on the difficult journey. I think as we continue to sit and discuss difficulties and successes, the collaborative efforts will bring change,” said Vonada.
Wiig took away an inspiring personal message as well. “This trip had a profound effect on me. After my diagnosis, I was fearful of leaving the safety of my home and cancer team. Overcoming this fear opened a new confidence in me.”
“Three words come to mind when thinking of this group: caring, commitment, and compassion,” said Wiig. “The work being done in our intermountain area is astounding and successful. The energy and commitment to the outcomes for each stage of cancer care, from early detection to increasing survival rate, brings a feeling of peace and hope to me and the other cancer patients I’ve interacted with.”
“We are more than a statistic to those who treat us and our caregivers,” said Wiig. “We feel hope again.”