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KU Cancer Center uses art to reach underserved communities

New mural is part of the KU Cancer Center’s campaign to encourage diverse participation in cancer clinical trials.

A brightly colored mural spans the side of a building, with four smiling faces, nearly completely painted. The artist, whose back is to the camera continues painting the face on the far left. Below the faces, the words "Clinical Research Needs Representation" appear.
The mural, a portrait of four local cancer survivors and co-survivors, is part of the KU Cancer Center’s efforts to increase participation by minority and underserved populations in clinical trials.

Sometimes the best way to reach a community is through art.

That’s the idea behind The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s new mural being painted by artist Vania Soto on the side of the Guadalupe Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri. The mural is a portrait of four cancer survivors and co-survivors, all persons from underserved populations, beneath which are painted the words “Clinical Research Needs Representation.”

“Using murals as a way of storytelling is really powerful because it's not just a billboard, it's literally me putting down every single coat of paint to tell the story,” said Soto, who is nearly finished painting the mural. “The impact is greater outside of just this community because it is done by hand, so it gives it more passion and more awareness of the importance of the message.”

A national and local problem

The mural, designed in collaboration with members of organizations in the surrounding urban community, is one part of the KU Cancer Center’s broader campaign to increase the participation of minority and underserved populations in clinical trials. Minority populations suffer disproportionately from cancer yet are underrepresented in these trials. Recent analyses of cancer therapeutic trials found that only 4%-6% of trial participants are Black and 3%-6% are Hispanic, despite representing 15% and 13% of people with cancer, respectively, according to a July 2022 article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Meanwhile, the area served by the KU Cancer Center, which is the entire state of Kansas and 18 counties in western Missouri, is growing increasingly diverse. In Wyandotte County, Kansas, 29% of the population is Latino.

More diversity in clinical trials not only helps ensure that new cancer treatments are effective for all people, but also that all people have access to new and promising treatments available only through such trials.

“The underrepresentation of certain patient populations in clinical trials is a national problem, and it’s a problem that we have locally as well,” said Ronald Chen, M.D., MPH, associate director of health equity at the KU Cancer Center. “The mural shows representation, and that’s what we want to see reflected in trials. We know patients enrolled in clinical trials often have better outcomes compared to all cancer patients, and we want to make sure patients understand that this can be an option for them.”

A message of hope

The KU Cancer Center and the Masonic Cancer Alliance, the cancer center’s outreach arm, partnered with Tico Productions, LLC, a minority-owned multilingual marketing agency, in the spring of 2022 to educate the Kansas City community and increase awareness about the importance of participating in clinicals trials. After conducting focus groups and issuing a community survey, the team sought to dispel myths about clinical trials through bilingual social media posts, YouTube videos, billboards and radio and TV ads on multiple stations. They also booked advertising in publications in Hispanic and Black communities.

An artist stands high on a lift, painting details on a face featured in a mural.
Artist Vania Soto paints the mural on the side of Guadalupe
Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri.

Soto, who was born in Juarez, Mexico, and has connections to the local Hispanic community, had painted a dozen murals in the Kansas City area before being hired to paint the clinical trials mural.

The four people being painted in the mural had also participated in the KU Cancer Center’s campaign to encourage minority participation in cancer trials. They include breast cancer survivor Kim Jones, a member of the KU Cancer Center’s patient research advocacy program known as PIVOT, which provides cancer survivors, co-survivors and researchers the opportunity to work together to design cancer research.

“I think [seeing the mural] will give people the feeling and the thought that we are changing things, we are being included, we are getting to the roundtable,” said Jones. “This is a sign of hope and change.”

Soto also sees the mural as an expression of hope. “People have asked me if this is a memorial to people that passed away through cancer, and I say no, actually it's a celebration of life because they have gone through it and they're cured,” said Soto. “So, it's a different kind of message of hope in a different way, celebrating the people who have lived through cancer.”

Interested in participating in a cancer clinical trial?

  • Call the cancer center’s Clinical Trials Office at 913-945-7552.
  • Find a clinical trial on the KU Cancer Center website
  • Look for a trial using the cancer center’s Clinical Trial Finder app. To download the app, go to the App Store or Google Play Store and search for “KUCC Clinical Trial Finder."  
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