Q&A: Community Involvement Promotes Cancer Awareness

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Of all the populations in the country, African-Americans have the highest cancer death rate and the shortest survival rate from the time of diagnosis of any ethnic group. This research statistic makes cancer awareness and prevention programs of utmost importance within this population.

To help address these health disparities and investigate the reasons why this population is more at risk, the Department of Health Disparities Research at MD Anderson established Project CHURCH to "Create a Higher Understanding of Cancer Research and Community Health." Project CHURCH began in December 2008 as a three-year study to investigate behavioral, social and environmental risk factors that contribute to cancer-related health disparities between population groups.

The study recruited 1,500 participants from Windsor Village United Methodist Church, one of Houston's largest African-American churches. Participants receive prevention services, referrals, educational materials and navigation assistance to health services and resources.

While data is still being analyzed, Lorna Haughton McNeill, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Disparities Research and principal investigator on Project CHURCH, explains how the study is designed to discover, develop and educate the community on cancer prevention interventions and lifestyle adjustments. McNeill is also co-director of the Center for Community, Implementation and Dissemination Research funded by the Duncan Family Institute.

Why did you decide to develop the Project CHURCH study, and what were your initial goals?

African-Americans bear a disproportionate burden of cancer-related disparities. They experience higher rates of many types of cancer than other Americans for reasons that often remain unknown. One issue is that, because minorities are under-represented in many cancer prevention studies, we have limited knowledge about the applicability of many research findings to African-Americans. Further investigation is needed to explore why cancer-related disparities exist and what can be done to reduce and eliminate them. To be successful, this will require innovative partnerships between communities and researchers to coordinate research and promote activities that will reduce disparities.

Why are community-based cohort studies so important?

Cohort studies, such as Project CHURCH, analyze a large group of individuals with a common quality and update the information regularly for many years. Community-based cohort studies can help answer important questions regarding cancer risk by examining a host of factors that might explain cancer-related health disparities. In this study, we are examining lifestyle and behavioral factors such as diet, physical activity and tobacco use. We're also looking at elements rarely examined, such as neighborhood factors, occupational exposure and racial discrimination, to name a few.

What makes the Project CHURCH cohort unique is its relationship with Windsor Village United Methodist Church. We have been able to provide an example of a successful partnership that resulted in strong minority participation.

Why was Windsor Village United Methodist Church chosen as the source for gathering participants for the study?

Windsor Village and MD Anderson have a long history of collaboration on cancer prevention and research. Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor at Windsor Village, is on the Board of Visitors of the cancer center, and several MD Anderson faculty members have provided important cancer prevention resources, such as PSA testing for prostate cancer and mammography screening, to the congregation. Also, Windsor Village is actively involved in ministering to the health of the community, as well as to that of its congregation. This makes Windsor Village a leading venue for community-based health promotion efforts.

The response at the Methodist church was overwhelming in such a short time span. Did you expect such a response?

We definitely did not expect the tremendous, positive response that we received from the church. More than 500 members signed up for the study in one day. Our initial recruitment goal was 1,200. Based on this response, we increased our enrollment to 1,501. We had also set a recruitment timeline for 12 months, hoping we would be able to enroll 1,501 in one year. We were able to meet our goal within six months.

Typically, research shows that African-Americans are less likely than other ethnic or racial groups to participate in research studies. But the enthusiastic response we received shows how the members of Windsor Village have embraced MD Anderson and indicates how African-Americans are committed to reducing cancer disparities.

Elaine Prejean joined Project CHURCH shortly after her first cancer diagnosis and she continues to encourage friends and family members to participate in the study. (Read more of her story at the link below.

What is next for Project CHURCH as it enters its third year?

We are now in the process of discussing Project CHURCH's future as we approach our third year of the study. Most important, we want to make sure we've fulfilled everything that was promised to the church. We are on track to fulfill those goals. Then, it will be important for the church to let us know whether it is interested in continuing. And of course, we will need to identify future funding.

Related story:
Breast Cancer Survivor Shares Danger of Neglect
At age 51, Elaine Prejean learned the importance of breast cancer awareness and the dangers of neglecting to have mammograms. Read Elaine's Story

Department of Health Disparities Research at MD Anderson

Project CHURCH (Windsor Village)

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