With Black women two times more likely to get triple-negative breast cancer than white women, Merck along with advocacy organizations (Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, Tigerlily Foundation, Living Beyond Breast Cancer and Susan G. Komen) launched Uncovering TNBC to raise awareness of the disease. The initiative is centered around three videos of women living with TNBC and is designed to help Black women better understand the disease and overcome barriers that could infringe upon their healthcare. In an interview with PRovoke Media, Merck chief communications & public affairs officer Cristal Downing, who joined the pharmaceutical giant earlier this year, discussed TNBC, the campaign and the communications challenges in reaching women most at-risk of getting the disease.

What is triple negative breast cancer? To what extent does it affect Black women more than others?
Triple-negative breast cancer, also known as TNBC, is an aggressive, often difficult to treat, subtype of breast cancer that is more prevalent in Black women. It makes up 10-15% of all breast cancers and while anyone can get it, non-Hispanic Black women are approximately two times more likely to have TNBC than non-Hispanic white women. Black women are also more likely to die of the disease compared to their white counterparts. The reasons for this are not completely understood, but studies suggest that it is likely due to a combination of socioeconomic and genetic risk factors.

How is that compounded by healthcare inequities?
Black women diagnosed with TNBC also face significant barriers to care due to a combination of factors, including lack of access to treatment and educational resources, inadequate breast cancer screenings, and bias in the healthcare system.

What are the communication challenges in conveying important information about the disease to the at-risk community? And breast health/screening in general? Is fear one of them?
After listening to the unique stories of Black women with TNBC, the most common challenge that we found all of them experienced was lack of communication with their healthcare teams. Lack of education about their increased risk of TNBC, and about the importance of screening and early detection were also recurring themes. It was clear that many women felt unsupported, fearful of confronting this disease alone, and did not know where to turn.

Therefore, we designed this campaign to empower women to be their own advocate, to find strength in the community of their peers and to highlight the resiliency of Black women in the face of a potentially difficult cancer journey.

What do you find to be the most effective methods/messages in delivering this information? What resonates with this at-risk population?
Through community-level listening, we identified authentic storytelling as the best way to reach our target audience of Black women who are newly diagnosed with or at risk of developing TNBC. By sharing real and inspiring stories of three women — Tiah, Damesha and Sharon — who each rose above the challenges presented by the disease, we provided support for other women impacted by TNBC.

To bring the program to the larger breast cancer community and general public, we executed a multi-pronged and targeted communications approach, including digital and social activations through our docuseries, Uncovering TNBC, educational website (UncoverTNBC.com) and content on Merck and patient advocacy group channels, and targeted media outreach. To date, we have secured 12 interviews with outlets such as People, Cheddar TV, and Ebony.

Has there been progress on this front?
Anecdotally, the feedback from our partners and on social media has been very positive. But metrics also indicate that the campaign has been very effective. Since launch, we’ve reached more than 736 million viewers through media interviews featuring our campaign spokesperson Yvonne Orji that touch on the need for health equity for Black women in the breast cancer community. Our website has garnered over 95,000 search engine marketing impressions, and 350 downloads of our discussion guide to aid in more productive patient-physician conversations. We are excited that women are using this guide to work with their health team on a care plan.

What are your goals, short and long term?
Professionally and personally, I am committed to helping educate Black women that they have a higher risk for developing diseases like TNBC compared to women of other racial/ethnic backgrounds and encouraging them to stay informed and educated about this disease, advocate for themselves, and make their health a priority by getting regular medical examinations as prescribed. Merck puts patients at the center of everything we do, and we remain committed to improving health equity today and well into the future, which is reflective of our purpose — to save and improve lives.