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Dr. Sandra Millon Underwood is using her voice to give a voice the vulnerable populations that are often overlooked or ignored. (Photo provided by the American Cancer Society)

For the past several decades, Dr. Sandra Millon Underwood has been working with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness about cancer and educate vulnerable populations about prevention methods.

Throughout her career, she has striven to contribute to the American Cancer Society’s vision while giving a voice to the populations that are often overlooked. This year, the American Cancer Society is honoring Underwood with the Champions of Hope award during its annual Champions of Hope Gala, which will be taking place virtually at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13. While Underwood was shocked to hear she’d be receiving the Champions of Hope award, Laurie Bertrand, executive director of the American Cancer Society Wisconsin, said Underwood more than deserved it.

“Dr. Underwood has shared more than 30 years with the American Cancer Society supporting our mission,” Bertrand said. “And you can hear it in her voice, her heart, her compassion, her determination to making cancer less of a burden for others is clear. She deserves this award more than anybody.”

Underwood started working in oncology nearly 40 years ago. When she began working at the oncology unit Veterans Administration Hospital, she was able to see more clearly the needs and challenges that cancer patients faced. Around the same time, the federal government and the American Cancer Society were putting forth a renewed focus on screening, early detection, clinical trials and so on.

Underwood soon joined the team. Her work put her in the lives of cancer survivors and gave her a deeper understanding of treatment and perhaps more importantly, life after treatment. It also gave her an opportunity to work with some of the most vulnerable and at-risk populations including women and minority groups.

“I felt that I was being compelled to work with this populations,” Underwood said. “In my role as a nurse, as a nurse educator and as a nurse clinician.”

Underwood continued, “I really tried to make sure that all I do is above and beyond an academic experience and a research experience. I mean, there are real people, genuine people, with needs and concerns.”

She explained that she felt an obligation to advocate for people because they aren’t just cancer patients but somebody’s loved one, be they a relative or a neighbor. It was this realization that propels Underwood to this day to use her platform to be a voice and give a voice.

The research is clear, she said. Health disparities and inequities directly impact someone’s risk assessment, management, screening and even treatment.

“The data is clear, relative to where the gaps are, where the needs are, where the opportunities are,” she said.

When she’s lecturing her students, Underwood wants them to understand that she’s committed to addressing the issues and doing what needs to be done. It’s not just an exercise or reflection of data, it’s real people, she said, adding that everyone is in a position where they could be less than adequately served.

Underwood explained that sometimes, researchers and scholars forget the history of certain communities, how they’ve been treated or not included. Individuals in power positions need to better understand communities and acknowledge that there is one human race, and we need to care for one another, she said.

Underwood’s position at the American Cancer Society granted her a seat at the table with policymakers.

“My voice, which in many ways is a reflection of their voices and our voices can be heard and can be added to the conversation,” she said.

Her other efforts include an initiative she started called the UW Health Careers Program, where high school students interested in various health careers receive support. The program offers mentorship and guidance. The students have gone on to be physicians, surgeons, health economists, chief medical officers and more.

While the Champions of Hope gala will be honoring Underwood, it also serves as a fundraising opportunity.

This year, the American Cancer Society is facing a 50% drop in cancer research due to the pandemic, Bertrand explained. Without adequate funding, the organization’s educational and research efforts will be impeded.

This year, individuals are encouraged to support the gala’s online auction or make a general donation to the Champions of Hope website, championsofhopewi.org. The gala is free to view online and will be streamed on Facebook on the American Cancer Society Champions of Hope – Milwaukee page, https://www.facebook.com/championsofhopemke.

Every donation – big or small – helps make a difference for the cancer patients of today and tomorrow.

As Underwood said, “It’s about us, us together, making a difference.”

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