Research Projects Expand Area Cancer Study

Published 4:10 pm Thursday, November 15, 2012

The two-year Cancer Assessment Study of the Piedmont Health District coordinated by Justine Young, RN, BSN, MBA, is continuing to seek answers about the high rate of cancer in our seven-county region. Recently two research projects have been initiated, one to determine how lifestyle habits affect cancer survivorship, and the other to provide education on cancer screenings.

The Piedmont Health District, which includes the counties of Amelia, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway, Prince Edward, is one of four health districts with the highest rate of cancer in the state.

“We still have 50 percent or more in this community who don't get cancer screenings,” noted Dr. Arpita Aggarwal of the VCU Department of Internal Medicine who is heading the local research project.

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Dr. Aggarwal recently completed a pilot project in the Farmville area to test an educational tool she developed to reach the local population and inform them of the importance of screenings.

“I'm a clinical investigator at Virginia Commonwealth University,” Dr. Aggarwal explained. “We came up with an innovative interactive audio-visual tool. It uses animated characters that look like the people in the community. In Farmville district, we have two facilitators who are from the community and know the community very well.”

The facilitators will go out into the community with this cancer-screening tool that is administered on iPads.

“We have six iPads with headphones that participants can listen to,” Dr. Aggarwal continued. “We came up with this 25 minute audio/visual tool based on the input of the community.”

To add another local slant to the program, four well-known Farmville residents – Francis and Chris Wood, Dr. Kitty Smith, and Perry Carrington – provided the voices of the characters on the video.

“Our basic purpose is to connect with people who are not familiar with medical jargon, the big syllable words,” Dr. Aggarwal added. “With this audio/visual tool we can communicate just like I'm sitting here talking to a patient who is coming from Farmville to my clinic. In the video we not only tell people what the cancer guidelines are, we address the barriers to cancer prevention. Some barriers, for example, might be that people do not know the information or if they do, not having enough resources to get the screenings. We address the general concepts of prevention and also talk about the importance of early diagnosis of cancer.”

The educational tool, Dr. Aggarwal added, is not age or gender-based.

“We use the same one for everybody,” she said. “The 18-year-olds will listen not only to the part about skin cancer, but they will hear about breast and colorectal cancers. This is important because his or her mom will be eligible for breast cancer screening and the dad for colorectal screening.”

The participants in this research study will be educated to pass on the information to other family members and friends.

“My goal is to change thinking at a community level,” Dr. Aggarwal stated. “That comes when everybody around you is on the same page.”

Dr. Aggarwal added that her experience in Farmville has been a extremely positive one.

“This has been my first study on a community level,” she noted. “The people here have been so welcoming – right from the start to now.”

After the pilot program is evaluated, Dr. Aggarwal explained, facilitators will go back into the community this coming spring to reach out to more of the population and hopefully increase cancer screening awareness in the general population.

“We will follow the participants for four months to see if they actually have screenings,” she added.

A schedule will be published at a later date for those who would like to participate in the study.

Also underway in the Piedmont District is a “Day and Night Cancer Survival Study” conducted by Dr. Yi Ning, also from VCU. The study is seeking participants between the ages of 18 to 85 that are cancer survivors or cancer patients with stage I, II, or III cancer. Some participants from the general population who do not have cancer are also needed. Participants will be compensated $80 for taking part in the study.

By participating in this research, participants will help doctors individualize cancer treatments and inform cancer survivors about lifestyle choices than can improve their quality of life.

Like the overall two-year Cancer Study, the Day and Night Cancer Survivor Study and the Cancer Screening Study are funded by Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission grants. Previously, the Cancer Study in the Piedmont District provided $50,000 for mammograms for uninsured or under-insured women at Centra Southside Community Hospital funded by the Komen for the Cure Foundation, and an exercise program for cancer survivors at the Southside Community Family YMCA funded by LIVESTRONG.

Dr. Aggarwal believes that her education-based message will encourage local residents to have cancer screenings that could save their lives.

“There is a significant fear of cancer,” she concluded. “Education is the only thing which can change that confidence level. I consider knowledge is power, and that's why we're trying to put the power in the hands of the people – then they can make the right decisions for themselves.”

For further information on the Cancer Assessment Study or to participate in a research study, contact Justine Young (434) 547-2574.