Taking cancer education and prevention into the community

Two groups of women: the first is a group of four women standing in a lobby, the second is a group of two women standing together.
Pictured: The Witness Project (L-R Beverly Johnson-Boutwell, Dee Johnson, Cassy Dauphin and Anna Perlova) and Esperanza y Vida (L-R Isnory Colon and Jomary Colon) are both part of Roswell Park's Community Outreach and Engagement Team.

Caring for people and sharing information on cancer screening and risk factors doesn’t just happen within the walls of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Each month, several outreach events take place at community centers, schools and churches within Buffalo and across Western New York, led by Roswell Park’s Community Outreach and Engagement team, people dedicated to helping reduce barriers to care and working to make sure people know their cancer risk factors. This same team will help people secure transportation, if needed, for routine cancer screenings that could save their lives.

Two groups at the core of this mission are Esperanza y Vida and The Witness Project, working tirelessly to reach underserved people across the area. 

Spreading 'Hope' for early cancer detection and more screenings

Esperanza y Vida

Esperanza y Vida, which translates to "Hope and Life," also provides Spanish-language translation and education services for the Hispanic community in Western New York, says Jomary Colon, a Senior Health Referral Specialist in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Population Services at Roswell Park. For nearly a decade, Colon has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in Buffalo and beyond, providing information and handouts on cancer risks and the importance of regular screenings.

“The most important thing is to make sure everything is translated into their language so they can understand,” she says. “Our team is about cancer prevention. We want to encourage people to get all their exams, not just for cancer but regular physicals too.”

Esperanza y Vida sets up information tables several times a month throughout Buffalo and Western New York, creating an easy way for people to have someone to talk to about cancer or other health conditions including diabetes. “If there’s an event scheduled, we want you to attend. We’ll set you up for a mammogram or a colorectal exam if you need it. We’ll give you information on other events that are coming up. We just want people to come out and get the benefits.”  The group also hosts monthly mammogram event in the Breast Clinic at Roswell Park, offering Spanish-language translation services and can help arrange transportation if needed.

Colon was recently asked to start hosting regular events with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, attending health fairs and visiting with residents inside buildings owned and managed by the city.

Her passion for outreach and cancer education is personal: Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28 and cervical cancer at 33. “I didn’t even know she had breast cancer until I worked here,” Colon says. “I have always worked with the Hispanic community. Education is so important. I come from this community, I want to see it grow and be healthy.”

Since 2018, the Esperanza y Vida team has reached more than 3,000 local community members and have identified almost 1,800 people eligible for mammography, and more than 900 Latina women were navigated to breast cancer screening services at the Roswell Park mammography center. The Esperanza y Vida staff also provide in-person medical interpretation support for breast cancer patients at Roswell Park.

Bearing ‘Witness’ to her community’s needs

The Witness Project

Dee Johnson has the same passion and dedication to increasing cancer education and awareness in Buffalo, working as a Senior Community Outreach and Engagement Manager for Roswell Park as part of The Witness Project. Her group, part of a national organization, also provides navigation services, connecting people with assistance to make and keep medical and screening appointments while also taking care of other needs. This includes a monthly breast cancer screening day; the next is scheduled for Friday, June 29, inside the Roswell Park Breast Clinic.

“We’re the lay people community engagement team,” she says. “We work to address those social determinants of health and disparities in access to care. We can tell a woman she needs her cancer screenings, but if she can’t get to the store to get groceries, she’s not thinking about getting a mammogram. We work with insurance companies to help people get insurance; we’re also referring them to cancer services. There are a lot of variables out there and we’re trying to get their needs met.”

The Witness Project also attends health fairs and special events with cancer information and Johnson and her team are willing and eager to talk to anyone who will listen. “You decide you want to meet on the corner of Ellicott Street at 3:30 p.m. and you have five ladies and a chair, we’ll be there!”

There are 50 active volunteers with the Witness Project, under Johnson’s guidance, who will go door-to-door to learn what services people need and try to meet and address those needs. This group surveyed 1,000 people last summer after the tragedy on Jefferson Avenue and set up food donations and transportation assistance for families in the Fruit Belt who needed assistance.

“This work means a lot to me,” she says. “African Americans face disparities in everything. We have challenges across the economic divide, the financial divide, the education divide, transportation. For us, working with a team of clinicians like those at Roswell Park, including Dr. Candace Johnson at the helm, and their willingness to empower our team on many fronts of cancer, social determinants of health, population health, to allow us to grow in our careers and reach back and provide the same support for our community, it’s meaningful.”

The Witness Project has reached more than 10,000 community members since 2018, identifying more than 2,500 people eligible for mammograms and navigating close to than 1,500 Black and Hispanic women for breast cancer and/or cervical cancer screening services.

Community outreach

Find out more about the various programs run by the Community Outreach & Engagement team.

Learn more

Both Johnson and Colon have big dreams for the year ahead, as Roswell Park gets ready to open a new building for the Community Outreach and Engagement Team at 907 Michigan Avenue later this summer.  The building will be a centralized location in the Fruit Belt where visitors can take a cancer risk assessment, sign up for screenings and enroll in community-based cancer prevention studies, helping doctors and researchers continue to work on developing new treatments for cancer. Esperanza y Vida and the Witness Project both will have the ability to host meetings and events at the new building, allowing them to continue to expand their outreach and meet the community in a welcoming, friendly setting.

A full list of community outreach events can be found here and is updated monthly. To reach Jomary Colon for Spanish-language services, call 716-239-2621. To reach The Witness Project, to schedule an appointment or for help with transportation to appointments, call 716-845-3383.