In summary

Cancer patients in California should have easy access to high-quality care and innovative cures without needless barriers.

Profile Image

By Elizabeth Helms, Special to CalMatters

Elizabeth Helms is the president and CEO of the California Chronic Care Coalition, an alliance of nonprofit, social consumer and provider organizations.

Throughout my life’s work in the patient’s rights movement, I’ve been able to work with people and organizations to bring about change for patients and their families who live daily with chronic conditions. 

There’s a quote often attributed as an African proverb that sums up this dynamic well: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This mantra is key in health care advocacy to bring attention to the most critical issues. Our collective voices are always stronger than just one advocate.

We’re seeing this advocacy applied in new ways toward cancer care. We’re advocating to break down barriers to equitable coverage that have stubbornly bogged down patient outcomes across the nation – and in California. 

Access to innovative, clinically appropriate cancer treatments will not only improve survival outcomes for cancer patients, but actualize a future where many cancer types can be viewed as a chronic condition to be managed in consultation with a care team.

While biomedical research has brought us life-saving innovations we could only have dreamed of a few decades ago, cancer patients in America still face inequities in insurance coverage and access to clinically optimal care. If socioeconomic disparities were eliminated, researchers estimate that 34% of cancer deaths among all U.S. adults ages 25 to 74 could be prevented. 

The bottom line is this: when patients receive early access to the treatments and expertise tailored to treat their cancer subtype, lives are saved and the quality of life remains higher during and after treatment.

These disparities are especially present for the 30% of Californians insured through the Medi-Cal program. Patients in the program often must navigate confusing layers of subcontracted care, when managed-care plans in California outsource responsibility for their patients. In many cases, the heavy use of subcontracted care adds a knot of red tape on top of an already stressful time for Medi-Cal patients trying to access specialized cancer care.

Cancer patients in the program often see disproportionate outcomes compared to other forms of insurance. Patients with Medi-Cal who have breast, colon, lung and rectal cancer are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage of disease and have less favorable five-year survival rates.

Our current one-size-fits-most system prevents many California cancer patients from accessing optimal care, and the lack of access has translated into needless human suffering and lives lost. The cancer community has a moral imperative to break down these barriers to access.

Cancer Care Is Different is a coalition of changemakers fighting for cancer care equity so that more Californians living with cancer can access promising new innovations in cancer care. Joining the California Chronic Care Coalition in this effort are City of Hope, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, North Bay Cancer Alliance and International Myeloma Foundation. The coalition stands behind the mission of the California Cancer Patients Bill of Rights, a resolution unanimously passed by the Legislature in 2021. 

California is the first state to adopt a bill of rights for cancer patients, which lays out six rights that every cancer patient should be entitled to, including access to promising innovations and experts specializing in various cancer types. We are grateful to California lawmakers who called for taking the principles in the Cancer Patients Bill of Rights resolution and turning them into law.

Following the promise of the Cancer Patients Bill of Rights and the documented disparities in access and outcomes, state policymakers and administrators have a moral imperative to ensure that cancer patients can easily access high-quality care and innovative cures without needless barriers. Of the more than 187,000 Californians diagnosed with cancer every year, thousands will be misdiagnosed or placed on inappropriate or ineffective treatment, especially affecting patients with co-morbidities which can complicate cancer care.

We can change this reality; by banding together to actualize a better future, we can go far in our mission to deliver cancer care equity in California.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: