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Helping to Make the Case for Cancer Treatment

As every public policy student knows, data can be a powerful tool. Data are needed at all parts of the public policy process, including policy formation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation. At the beginning of that process, data are needed to identify problems that are amenable to policy action, and to establish baselines for change. But where do you find the data?

This spring, Lucy Greenman ’22, used her research skills to find data on various aspects of cancer, from its prevention to its effects on mortality. Lucy, who will be designing her own major combining public health policy, data science, and economics, completed a one-credit internship at the Schroeder Center. Lucy’s tasks: find as much existing data as she could on cancer-related measures for the population residing in Halifax County, Virginia.

Why Halifax? A century ago, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was born in Halifax County, Virginia. She later moved to Maryland with her husband, where she was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, her own cancer cells were replicated and distributed for decades. The HeLa cells, as they are called, have contributed to new cancer therapies, as well as countless other scientific advances, including development of the polio vaccine, treatment of HIV/AIDS, and mapping the human genome. To honor her legacy, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 2018 creating the Henrietta Lacks Commission to study the creation of a cancer research and treatment center in South Boston, at town located in Halifax County.

To support the Commission, its co-chairs have sought input on the types of data that can be used to measure cancer-related outcomes specific to the region. As a first step, Lucy set out to inventory websites and documents to find published data on access to care, cancer-related risky behaviors like smoking and obesity, and cancer prevalence. Her findings were summarized in a report for the Henrietta Lacks Advisory Commission. Sharing thoughts on her research experience, Lucy notes: "This was my first venture into health policy research, and I was most surprised by the wealth of data that is freely available if you just know where to look. I was a little worried to be studying Halifax County, because I assumed that such a little-known place wouldn't be well-represented among existing data. It did take a little bit of digging, but there was plenty of relevant and important information out there to be found."