Dr. Lannis Hall

Dr. Lannis Hall poses with many First Ladies during the 2nd Annual First Ladies’ Health Equity Symposium on Nov. 5th at Greater Grace Church in St. Louis County.

For many Christian churches the First Lady serves specific roles. She’s traditionally married to the head pastor; she’s invested in the community and serves as the eyes, ears, and hearts of the Church Family.

Holding true to that definition, the 2nd Annual First Ladies' Health Equity Symposium held on Nov. 5th, was held for the congregation of city residents to become proactive in addressing health disparities.

The event, held at Greater Grace Church in St. Louis County was hosted by first ladies of several area churches including Greater Grace Church of Ferguson, New Sunny Mount Missionary Baptist Church, New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, Solomon's Temple Church, Centennial Christian Church, and Lively Stone Church of God. Presenters addressed several pertinent health issues such as health screenings for most common cancers, including gynecological and prostate cancers, the latest information on cancer vaccines, the basics of mental health, the correlation between diet, exercise and good health; and adopting self-care techniques.

Dr. Lannis Hall, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Clinical Radiation Oncology, Washington University School of Medicine, spoke proudly of the event’s outcome.

“We completed over 129 blood pressure checks, glucose, and cholesterol screens, 54 Flu vaccinations, 54 COVID vaccinations, 18 mammograms, 20 PSA screens, 148 Hemoglobin A1C tests, and 13 colon self-tests and colonoscopy referrals, Hall said, adding: “We had a total of 436 screenings performed, which was amazing.”

Recalling the genesis of the First Ladies' Health Equity Symposium, Hall spoke of a pivotal luncheon in 2020, before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Siteman Cancer Center developed a health information partnership with a few area pastors. Hall gathered at a luncheon to celebrate the success of the media campaign that stressed the importance of health screenings for cancers.

Hall recalled how she sat next to First Lady Rachel Hankerson who attended the luncheon in her husband’s absence. In discussing a renewed focus on women’s health, particularly increasing rates of late-stage cervical, ovarian and endometrial cancers, Hankerson suggested starting a First Lady’s women's health initiative.

Hall’s calls to Hankerson to follow up on their conversation went unanswered. She found out days later that Hankerson had been hospitalized. Within 35 days, Hall said, First Lady Hankerson passed away from a “highly aggressive, widely metastatic cancer.” Initially unable to process the sudden death, Hall eventually reached out to a couple pastors and first ladies.

“I said, ‘we have to promote this now more than ever. We have to educate our citizens, our congregations,” Hall recalled saying. “We can’t let this pass.”

Fellow First Ladies agreed. In 2021, with a global pandemic still raging, the 1stAnnual First Ladies' Health Equity Symposium was held at Greater Grace Church.

“We were still under COVID restrictions and had all the social distancing protocols in effect (at the church) but even with all of that,” Hall said, “we had more than 140 people in attendance and more than 650 attending virtually. Additionally, we did over 125 screenings. So, by all accounts, we considered the event a huge success.”

Hall is quick to give credit for the symposium to “the First Ladies, volunteers, physicians, and sponsors across the community who made this event possible.” She is equally grateful to her professional colleagues who conducted sessions at the event. For example, Dr.Dineo Khabele, the first Black department chair at Washington University’s School of Medicine spoke on the topic of “Cancers Below the Belt.” Arnold Bullock, MD, Professor of Urology at Washington University’s School of Medicine addressed men’s health and prostate cancer and Jeanna R. Knight, Ph.D., behavioral health leader who has developed streamlining processes and health improvement programs, talked about mental health techniques such as meditation and other ways to reduce stress.

Health screenings were provided by some of the event’s sponsors. Siteman Cancer Center provided its mammogram van for breast cancer screenings. BJC’s Community Health Van was on site to provide flu vaccines, diabetic, cholesterol and high blood pressure screenings while the Program to Eliminate Cancer Disparities provided prostate and colon cancer screenings and Oak Street Health gavehemoglobin A1C testing.

Valeda Keys, a two-time breast cancer survivor, was a bit nervous about the testimonial she was scheduled to give at the health symposium. But, when she considered the dire statistics of black women dying from cancer, she told herself, “I got this!”

“I talked about how black women are dying at an alarming rate here in St. Louis,” Keys said. “We’re the number one in the United States where black women are dying from cancers.

Dr. Hall added more context to the health disparities.

“Nationwide, on average, African American women have a 40% higher breast cancer mortality rate compared to white women but in certain St. Louis regions that number is 80%, it’s double,” Hall stressed. “When you think about the number of healthcare entities in St. Louis, we’re not lacking for hospitals or places to provide excellent care. What we are struggling with, is access points that are not equitable across our region.”

Keys believes she inherited breast cancer from her mother. Therefore, she said, mammograms and genetic testing are so important. It’s also why Black women, especially, must make and keep their mammogram appointments.

“If you have a close family member-a mother, a grandmother, a sister, or an aunt-I definitely recommend genetic testing,” Keys said.

Dr. Hall’s life has been impacted by cancer. She said she lost three out of her four grandparents to preventable cancers. As she learned more about groundbreaking cancer-fighting techniques, Hall said she started working with churches and radio personalities more than 20 years ago to develop outreach programs for the “community I love.” She has been a valiant activist for increased cancer screening for Black men and women for years.

Even before hosting the First Ladies Health Equity Symposiums, Hall, Dr. Bullock founded the “Prostate Cancer Coalition.” With a coalition of healthcare providers and survivors the initiative advocated “Smart Screenings” for African American men and men with strong family histories of prostate cancer.

More than 400 people attended the 2ndAnnual Ladies Health Equity Symposium. Another 430 viewers attended virtually. Dr. Hall, who ended the event with a “Call to Action,” acknowledged the First Ladies attempt to address the health concerns of wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, because Hall said, there’s a common collective:

 “It’s All in the Family.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow. 

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