First lady Jill Biden gestures as she speaks Wednesday during a visit to the Massey Cancer center at Virginia Commonwealth University for a discussion about cancer disparities in Richmond, Virginia.

RICHMOND, Virginia — During a visit to a cancer center Wednesday, first lady Jill Biden said health disparities have hurt communities of color “for far too long” and “it’s about time” the country got serious about ending those inequities.

Jill Biden’s visit to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center in Richmond was her first public trip outside Washington since her husband’s inauguration last month.

She has been a longtime advocate for cancer patients and their families. Her and President Joe Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. Her parents also died of cancer.

During her visit, Jill Biden recounted how four of her friends were diagnosed with breast cancer within a one-year period in the 1990s.

“Cancer touches everyone,” she said.

Biden praised the work of doctors and researchers at the Massey center, which has been nationally recognized for its work to study the socioeconomic and cultural factors that contribute to disparities in cancer outcomes. The center focuses on community engagement as part of a strategy to better reach underserved communities and to address health disparities, particularly in the Black community. It also works to expand minority participation in cancer research.

Biden cited “Facts and Faith Fridays,” a weekly conference call started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic by Dr. Robert Winn, director of the Massey center, and Black clergy, to provide pastors and their congregations with key updates on pandemic-related issues, including personal protective equipment, social distancing, and rent and mortgage relief.

Recently, the calls have included information about COVID-19 vaccinations, with a focus on addressing vaccine hesitancy. Guests have included Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as state and local health officials.

Biden said the initiative has helped build trust between communities and the Massey center, which she said has made strides to reduce health disparities.

“It’s about time that we started getting really serious about this,” she said, adding that the pandemic has put a spotlight on the problem.

She said churches have been key players in bringing everything from food to vaccinations to people of color during the pandemic.

“I think that the communities of color, they trust you, and now, I think it’s important that they learn to trust the federal government again,” she said.

The Massey center, founded in 1974, is one of two centers in Virginia designated by the National Cancer Institute to help lead the country’s cancer research efforts.

Biden toured the center’s research laboratory with Winn and Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute. She also received briefings from several doctors on their research.

Story by Denise Lavoie.