MCW Pilot Study Shows Churches May Play a Pivotal Role in Supporting Cancer Survivors

Two People PrayingResearch shows that collaborations between churches and academic institutions can strengthen outreach in diverse communities, and may offer unique avenues for cancer support and advocacy. As the population of cancer survivors in the U.S. steadily grows, churches will play a pivotal role in reaching and supporting people after they receive a diagnosis; however, they’ll need the resources to do it. In a new pilot study, MCW researchers found that engaging African American churches in a two-day training may be an effective way to build capacity and provide the essential education and tools to help them create cancer support ministries. These findings, recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health, shed an important light on disparities in survivor support and drive forward the MCW Cancer Center’s efforts to ensure all people can lead fulfilling lives after cancer.

“Churches have always supported the needs of underserved communities by providing spiritual, emotional, and tangible support. However, it’s important they include the perspectives of cancer survivors on the types of support needed. This may include partnering with cancer survivors to develop educational materials, tools, and programs focused on cancer survivorship,” said the study’s first author Jamila Kwarteng, PhD, MS, Assistant Professor of Community Health in the Institute for Health & Equity. “We learned that this intervention is a feasible way to help churches identify one to two long-term strategies to support cancer survivors, however, ongoing support is crucial for them to get their activities off the ground.”

“Cancer is the leading cause of death among African Americans in Wisconsin, with disparities persisting across a wide range of cancer types. By providing educational resources, ongoing support, and communication, our local churches can play a pivotal role in supporting cancer survivors in the African American community,” noted Dr. Kwarteng.

The team’s intervention included a two-day virtual workshop with Milwaukee-area churches, followed by a three- and six-month evaluation on their progress toward starting a cancer support ministry. The first day focused on understanding cancer basics, the relevance of a cancer support ministry, and vocabulary and etiquette to use when talking to a cancer survivor; the second focused on establishing a cancer support ministry or nonprofit cancer support organization, recruitment, and policies and procedures. Researchers measured the workshops’ success based on factors such as enrollment, attendance, adherence to the program, and retention of participants.

“Given the success of our two-day intervention, I’m working to expand the program to an eight-week training that educates health ministries on implementing an eight-week curriculum for adult survivors,” said Dr. Kwarteng.

Insights from this study have played a major role in shaping the Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) team’s faith-based initiative, which strengthens the Center’s partnerships with Milwaukee-area churches, and helps them establish support systems for patients, families, and survivors. Melanie Burns, the program’s coordinator, said since she started at MCW in 2022, she has built several meaningful relationships with faith-based organizations that have led to improved support, health, and happiness for people across the community.

“Our Cancer Center recognizes that faith-based organizations have a uniquely powerful ability to assist members in addressing health disparities and social issues,” said Burns. “It’s my privilege and joy to work with these communities, and increase access to critical services like health screenings, cancer prevention education, and health care navigation assistance, and to provide information about the value of clinical trials and research.”

The growth of this program has also led to new educational opportunities and events, including the inaugural Care for the Cancer Caregiver conference, which celebrates the nearly three million adult caregivers in the U.S. who provide invaluable support to loved ones with cancer. “Caregivers are the unsung heroes of the cancer journey, and they often sacrifice their well-being when caring for loved ones. This event brings together doctors, health and wellness experts, and community members to honor the cancer caregivers who are an integral part of our healthcare system,” added Burns.

To learn more about Care for the Cancer Caregiver, please contact Melanie Burns (