Independent news has never been so important.

Did you know that you can get Democracy Now! delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our Daily News Digest today! Don't worry, we'll never share or sell your information.

Activist Damu Smith: Fighting Colon Cancer and Systemic Racial Disparities in American Healthcare

StoryAugust 01, 2005
Watch Full Show
Media Options

Longtime activist Damu Smith is the founder of Black Voices for Peace. He has fought war and racism for decades. Now he’s fighting for his life. He has colon cancer. We speak with Damu Smith about his struggle with cancer and for equitable healthcare in this country. [includes rush transcript]

Damu Smith is a pillar of the peace and anti-racism movements in the United States. He founded Black Voices for Peace and the National Black Environmental Justice Network. He hosts the program Spirit in Action on Pacifica station WPFW. He was a key leader in the anti-Apartheid movement and has fought police brutality in Washington, DC and around the country.

Now, Damu Smith is fighting for his life. He was in Israel-Palestine earlier this year for a peace march when he collapsed and was taken to a hospital. Doctors there found polyps on his colon and a tumor in his liver. They told him he had three to six months to live. Damu is 53-years-old and has a 12-year-old daughter.

This year the American College of Gastroenterology issued new guidelines urging African Americans to be screened for colon cancer beginning at age 45 — five years earlier than other people. African Americans have the highest rates of mortality from heart failure, cancer, and AIDS out of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. People of color face a lower overall quality of health services than white people and lack access to routine medical care.

Damu Smith is using both natural and pharmaceutical medications to fight the cancer and told the Washington Post “I’m going to be the poster child for twice-a-year screenings.”

We’re joined now in our Washington DC by Damu Smith. We’ll talk about his years of activism and his battle today for his life. And we will also speak with Dr. Joseph Betancourt, an expert on racial disparities in healthcare. But first, we go to a an excerpt of a speech by Damu Smith delivered at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on January 21st, 2005, one day after the inauguration of George W. Bush.

  • Damu Smith, speaking at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on January 21st, 2005, one day after the inauguration of George W. Bush.

An initiative launched last month by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino will address racial disparities in healthcare head on. A city-sponsored study found that Black men in Boston die on average five years sooner than white men. Black people are twice as likely to die from diabetes and four times more likely to contract HIV. The new initiative will funnel one million dollars into detailed tracking of racial differences in patient care and cultural awareness training for healthcare providers.

  • Dr. Joseph Betancourt, senior scientist at the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was part of the panel for the Institute of Medicine that published “Unequal Treatment,” a 2003 study examining racial disparities in health care.
  • Damu Smith, founder, Black Voices for Peace and executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. To donate money for Damu Smith’s healthcare fund, go to or call (202)-265-4919.

Related Story

Web ExclusiveJul 26, 2021From the Archives: Civil Rights Leader Bob Moses in 2010 on Fighting for Equality in Law & Education
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in Washington, D.C. by Damu Smith. We’ll talk about his years of activism and his battle today for his own life. We’ll also speak with Dr. Joseph Betancourt, an expert on racial disparities in health care. But first we go to an excerpt of a speech Damu gave recently at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. It was on the day of the inaugural of President Bush. This is Damu Smith.

DAMU SMITH: Yesterday, I watched the President, in his inauguration speech, mention “freedom” twenty-plus times. The day before, I heard his stone-faced, reactionary nominee for Secretary of State, Ms. Condoleezza, speak so insensitively about the issue of torture. George Bush doesn’t know anything about freedom, because he’s not hearing the cries of the Haitian people. He’s not hearing the cries of the Palestinian people who live under the boot of Israel’s brutal and barbaric and racist occupation of the Palestinian people. He does not hear the cries of the Iraqi people. He does not hear the cries of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He does not hear the cries of the people in the Congo where the United States policy of so many years created the division in that country that we’re seeing right now.

I didn’t hear him talk about the people in the far region of the Sudan. I didn’t hear him talk about the people in the ghettos and barrios of America. I didn’t hear him talk about the working people of our country who don’t have a living wage and don’t have health care. I didn’t hear him talk about our youth who are dying in our streets and our children who are going hungry every day. I didn’t hear him talk about any of these things. He knows nothing about freedom.

We know everything about freedom. We’re the moral authority of our nation. Our responsibility is to be the other voice and the other authority because there’s a dual authority in the country. There’s one authority representing the reactionary and evil and criminal policies of this administration, and then there’s the authority of people who love and yearn for justice and peace and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu Smith, speaking at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington D.C. after the inauguration of George W. Bush this past January. When we come back from our break, Damu joins us live in our studio in Washington. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Long time peace activist Damu Smith joins us today in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Damu.

DAMU SMITH: Oh, thank you so much, Amy. I’m so happy to be here this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So you collapsed in the occupied territories, went to the hospital there. They sent you back here and you learned from doctors you had little time to live, three to six weeks, is that right?

DAMU SMITH: Well, according to one of the doctors that evaluated me at a local hospital here in Washington. People who have my advanced stage of colon cancer, which is stage four colorectal cancer with metastasis in my liver — people in that statistical category, he said, have three to six months to live. I heard this information from the doctor and made a decision right then that that was an unacceptable death sentence for me, and I’ve been fighting to make sure that I live, and that means getting the best quality care, both from the conventional health care treatment centers, as well as from complementary alternative health care practitioners who are much more hopeful and much more holistic in their view of what it means to treat these kinds of catastrophic illnesses.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu, when you first heard here about your prognosis, about your diagnosis, colon cancer, fourth stage, what was your response as you moved from the world of the healthy into — over that divide so quickly?

DAMU SMITH: Well, the news hit me like I’m sure it hits anyone, like a ton of bricks in my belly. I had to really be still for a moment in the emergency room at the hospital and say to myself, what does this all mean? And my life paraded before me like a video before my eyes, and I made a decision again on the spot, I’ve got to fight. I’ve got to fight to live. But in the process of fighting to live, myself, I want to walk this path and this journey publicly, because I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through.

It’s very important for people to understand that this is a life threatening disease. 150,000 people each year are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Approximately 60,000 of those people will die from the disease if they don’t get early screening, and African Americans and other people of color die disproportionately from this cancer, as well as other cancers. So I want to walk this journey publicly so that other people similarly situated can have a fighting chance. But that means not just talking about going to the doctor to get early screening.

That’s important, it’s fundamental, but also we have to address the public policy issues associated with the possibility of getting screened. You can tell people to go get screened, but colonoscopies cost money, from $700 to $900 every time you go. People who are uninsured, and that’s 44 million people in this country, 40 million partially insured, 164 million people in this country who are in health jeopardy because they don’t have access to some form of health insurance. We’re talking about a situation where people don’t have the possibility of getting screened. So we can’t just talk about getting screened, we have to talk about how we can organize and protest and raise the fundamental public policy issues including the need for national comprehensive universal health care, and that’s what the Spirit of Hope Campaign which has been mobilized around my situation is doing, to raise these issues of universal access and racial disparities in the health care system. And so this fight is not only Damu Smith’s fight, but it is the fight of all Americans who are concerned about racial disparities and access to health care in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu, how can you afford to have the treatment that you’re getting? By the way, can you talk about where are you being treated?

DAMU SMITH: I’m being treated —

AMY GOODMAN: If you want to say.

DAMU SMITH: No problem. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. Also, I’m at the National Integrated Health Institute in Washington. Dr Sakiliba Mines, Dr. Allison Henderson here in Washington, Dr. James Davis at the Sign of Jonah getting acupuncture treatment. So I’m getting treatment from a variety of sources, as I mentioned. I’m having to reach into the toolbox of healing using all of the tools that are there to help me because, again, I am facing a serious threat to my life.

And so I’m able to do all of these things right now because of the generosity of family and friends who have rallied to my cause. I want to publicly thank Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey and the Rock, and Danny Glover, who hosted the national tribute and fundraiser to me here in Washington on Saturday, July 9, where 1,000 people from around the nation and the Washington area came together to pay tribute to me and to raise money, but also to raise these issues that I’ve talked about on this broadcast: the need to have access to health care.

We had a health fair just prior to that event. So we’re not just talking about Damu Smith, again. We’re talking about the need for health justice for all, and that is also linked to the issue of our nation’s priorities, Amy. We can’t talk about health justice unless we talk about the war in Iraq? Why? Because we’re talking about $400 billion being spent on war and occupation, when people in this country don’t have fundamental access to health care. Billions of dollars are being spent on research and development for space weapons, for nuclear weapons technology. Dr. King said that when a nation focuses on these kinds of things, our priorities are out of whack. So we have to connect all of the dots here, and that’s what we did in Washington, D.C. on July 9.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Damu Smith in Washington, D.C. And we’re also on the line with a scientist from Boston, Joseph Betancourt. An initiative launched last month by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, will address racial disparities in health care head on. The Boston-sponsored study found that black men in Boston die on average five years sooner than white men. African Americans are twice as likely — African American men — to die from diabetes, four times more likely to contract H.I.V. The new initiative will funnel a million dollars into detailed tracking of racial differences in patient care and cultural awareness training for health care providers. Joseph Betancourt, a senior scientist at the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital was part of the panel for the Institute of Medicine that published “Unequal Treatment,” a study examining racial disparities in health care. He worked closely with Boston to develop the initiative addressing health care inequality. Thanks for joining us along with Damu Smith in Washington, Dr. Betancourt.

DR. JOSEPH BETANCOURT: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me, and I just want to thank Damu Smith, and it’s a real honor to be on the phone with him. I am with him in his struggle, and I thank him for what he is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us, Dr. Betancourt, what it is that you’ve found and the picture that Damu was describing, how he fits into this.

DR. JOSEPH BETANCOURT: Sure, well, you know, unfortunately, Damu’s story is not unique. I’d say it’s probably the rule rather than the exception. The issue of disparities in health, racial disparities in health, have been a long-standing problem that really emerge from many of the very troubling issues of this nation’s history. And so it should be no surprise that we see these disparities in health, and it’s a major problem, I think, that’s getting growing attention. I participated in the Institute of Medicine report entitled “Unequal Treatment,” that was released in 2002. Clearly we did in no way discover disparities. These disparities have been around for a long, long time.

And I think — I just want to differentiate two issues. One, the issue of disparities in health, which is the fact that African Americans and minorities tend to be overrepresented among those who suffer from chronic diseases and other illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, asthma, H.I.V., for a whole set of reasons, and one of them that was already mentioned here is the issue of access. Minorities tend to be overrepresented also among the uninsured. So you can imagine, without insurance, you really don’t stand a very good chance of doing well when you have a chronic condition, when you need health promotion, disease prevention screenings. When you need advanced treatments, you’re at a significant disadvantage.

It’s also apparent that clearly the social context in which many of our minorities live in this nation, suffering from environmental hazards, living in environments that are unsafe, not benefiting from the best we have to offer in terms of education, being in the lower socioeconomic ranks, all those things clearly impact our health and contribute to disparities in health.

But the other issue that we studied in our report is that even when you have insurance, and even if we were able to provide — which, I think, is an absolute goal for this nation, to make sure that every American has health care insurance — even if we were able to provide that, we still see that if two people come to the emergency room and one is white, one is a minority, there’s a greater chance that the minority patient will receive a lower quality of care, again, even if with the same level of insurance as their white counterpart, same level of education, for a whole set of reasons. And I think that was what we put on the table in “Unequal Treatment.”

So I think that it’s important to understand that disparities in health are a very large problem, disparities in healthcare are one piece of the problem, but a very important piece. But clearly, if we’re ever going to eliminate disparities in health in this nation, we need to do more about the social context and the social and general policies by which we live in this nation. We also need to do more by way of access, and then we also need to do more by way of improving the way health care is delivered to all of our patients.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu Smith, when you are at Johns Hopkins getting your treatment, you have discussions with the doctors about issues like universal health care.

DAMU SMITH: Absolutely, because, for example, there’s a procedure called a PET Scan which provides doctors with a closer look at the metabolic chemistry of tumors, and that PET scan at Johns Hopkins cost $4,975. As part of a health treatment plan, if you don’t have health insurance in that situation and your doctor is saying that you need that, you simply won’t have it. And I was actually told by someone associated with the hospital who asked me, did I have that money to put up front for the radiologist, and I said, “Well, no I don’t.” That person said to me, “Well, you probably really could just skip it if you had to and not have it as part of your treatment plan.” And this is my first real intimate interaction with the health care system, Amy. I have never faced this kind of situation before. I have lived a healthy lifestyle. I have never been confined to a hospital for any reason. So while I have been talking about this issue for years, I am now interfacing with the U.S. health care system on a much more intimate level. And I’m learning about the kinds of things that everyday people face all the time. It’s a disgrace, again, that we live in a country where people have to face these kinds of obstacles to quality care.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also at a time — you have to take on the system at a time when you’re sick, and this is what people I guess find all the time.

DAMU SMITH: Yes. And it’s very time consuming to have to do that. I have been blessed in the sense that I have been able to have a wonderful network of friends and family, literally from around the world and around the country and in the Washington metropolitan area, who have come to my support. But most people don’t have this kind of support, Amy, and it’s very difficult. So, again, I’m on a campaign not just for Damu Smith, but for everybody similarly situated. And when I mention the issue of environmental justice, when the doctor talked about the quality of life factors, this is very important because people of color are disproportionately exposed to sources of pollution and conditions of environmental degradation, which affects the health and safety of our community, so we come in sicker when we come into the emergency room or in contact with doctors, and usually we’re coming later, because we are uninsured, that is people of color. This is a very serious issue.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Damu, think I first met you more than 20 years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when you were speaking at an environmental racism conference, talking about communities of color and where, for example, oil refineries are placed.

DAMU SMITH: Absolutely. In the region called “Cancer Alley” between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi river, there’s scores of impoverished, mostly African American and poor communities living in close proximity to oil refineries, plastic production facilities and literally seven days a week, nearly 24 hours a day, those communities are being rained on with some of the worst toxins and chemicals imaginable. So people are very, very sick. Children in those communities miss school because they have high rates of asthma and other severe respiratory problems, and there are very high rates of cancer in that region of the country and in other parts of the country where people of color and poor and working class people are disproportionately exposed to sources of pollution.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu, before we wrap up, I wanted to ask, where are you in your chemo regimen, your chemotherapy, and how do you get by during those periods when you’re taking chemotherapy?

DAMU SMITH: Well, I’m supposed to be on a six-month chemotherapy regimen. As I mentioned, I’m also receiving complementary alternative medicine with I.V. infusions of vitamin C and other minerals. I’m taking supplements, I’m doing breath work, acupuncture and getting herbal treatments. So that’s where I am. I’m happy to announce, Amy, that there’s been a 40% reduction in the size of my tumors in my colon and the lesions in my liver, so I am making progress, but I’m not out of the woods, and I’m not out of the loop, and people can go to the website to find out more about what’s happening with me, or call (202) 265-4919, or write the to get more information about what’s happening with me.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Damu, we’ll put all that contact information on our website at Damu. thank you very much for joining us. Damu Smith, Founder of Black Voices for Peace, and we’re going to check back with you soon, have you back on Democracy Now! and see how you’re doing, as we look at how the nation is doing, as well. Also Dr. Joseph Betancourt, thank you for being with us from Massachusetts General Hospital.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

From the Archives: Civil Rights Leader Bob Moses in 2010 on Fighting for Equality in Law & Education

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation