Since its 2006 study on cancer disparities between black and white women, Mt. Sinai Hospital and its Urban Health Institute has continued to raise awareness of cancer and other health issues facing blacks.

In 2006, researchers found that black women die twice as often as their white counterparts from breast cancer. A 2002-03 study found that communities such as North Lawndale have higher pediatric asthma rates (23 percent) compared to the entire city (13 percent).

But hospital officials wanted to do more than just release facts and figures about why blacks suffer from high rates of diabetes, hypertension and HIV/AIDS. The West Side hospital wants to inform residents that programs exist to address these maladies-many of them offered free at Mt. Sinai.

“We have done quite of bit of research in the Urban Health institute to try to find out the main problems affecting the health of the communities we serve,” said Steve Whitman, director of the Sinai Urban Health Institute. We want to work with the community to improve their health.”

Since breast cancer is among the leading cause of deaths for black women, the hospital has begun an aggressive outreach program to encourage women to get mammograms. Whitman noted in 1996, breast cancer mortality rates for both black and white women were even. But 1999 saw a shift among breast cancer death rates. Mortality rates for white women decreased while the rate for black women increased by 29 percent. That disparity continues to rise every year, Whitman said, noting in 2005 the mortality rate for black women reached 116 percent.

While acknowledging improved screenings and treatment for cancer treatment overall, Whitman contends black women haven’t been able to access those improvements because of racism and poverty. Additionally, women forgo mammograms because of the pain associated with it, but health experts note the compression is necessary for the technicians to get a good picture. Mt. Sinai offers ultrasound and MRIs to check breast health, as well as the newest equipment in digital mammography.

Marilyn Spells knows first hand the services offered by Mt. Sinai. Last year, Spells, 55, underwent a lumpectomy, an ordeal she said made less traumatic by the help offered at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The former Austin resident who now lives in Woodlawn was terrified of losing her breast. The hospital offered a program that walks breast cancer patients through treatment from surgery to chemotherapy.

“They held my hand when I didn’t want my hand held,” said Spells. “I made it through this situation with the guidance and help of the staff here.”

Clarification: In the Nov. 6, issue of the Austin Weekly News, we mistakenly stated that Sinai Heath Institute had released a report on breast cancer disparities between black and white women. A report on disparities was released last month by The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, which the institute is a member.