Reaching out to prevent cancer in high risk communities

September 13, 2013

By Jean Peat


There are no test tubes and not a microscope in sight. The research conducted by The University of Kansas Cancer Center's Cancer Control and Population Health Program (CCPH) takes place entirely outside of your typical scientific laboratory.

"Our research is engaged with people and the interaction between them, their communities and their environments," says Edward Ellerbeck, M.D., co-leader of the CCPH Program at the KU Cancer Center and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center. "The people we work with come from all walks of life, from every location around the state."

The primary goal of the CCPH Program is to help people, especially those in underserved communities and at high risk for developing cancer, obtain an early diagnosis, gain access to treatment options and, ultimately, help them avoid getting cancer in the first place.

Although the CCPH Program has been part of the KU Cancer Center for eight years, its research role is especially important now as the Cancer Center looks toward earning Comprehensive Cancer Center designation in 2016.

"It is absolutely critical that we have a community-based component that reaches out to populations at risk and helps them deal with issues related to cancer prevention, cancer control, and early detection and screening," Ellerbeck says. "We are very fortunate to have partners throughout the state — primary care physicians and Midwest Cancer Alliance hospitals — who've been huge allies in our efforts to advance the science of cancer control."

In the case of the CCPH program's outreach efforts, size does matter. "Kansas is unique in that we have a huge rural population that is separated by large distances. Fortunately, that allows us to do research specifically related to telemedicine and other novel techniques to bring state-of-the-art programs to these communities," he says.

Working with minority populations is the focus of many of the CCPH Program's research studies. Currently, the CCPH Program has landed more than $11.5 million in outside funding — including a recent $2.7 million National Cancer Institute grant — to conduct research ranging from smoking cessation and breast cancer education to nutrition classes and colorectal screenings.

The level of diversity found in populations throughout the sunflower state may come as a surprise to some Kansans. Paula Cupertino, Ph.D., director of Juntos Center for Advancing Latino Health, notes that Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the state. "Some Kansas counties are more than 50 percent Latino and it is often these populations who are the most in need of cancer education programming," she says.

"Latinos have lower access to preventive efforts and tend to have a later diagnosis," Cupertino says. "With our community outreach infrastructure, we can develop new clinical trials and studies that will have a direct impact on their level of care."

Kansas also has a rich American Indian population and is home to four different tribes, according to Christina Pacheco, a research assistant professor for the Department of Family Medicine in the Center for American Indian Community Health, who is working on a smoking cessation research program called the All Nations Breath of Life.

"American Indians have a dual relationship with tobacco. Traditionally it was used for ceremonial purposes," says Pacheco. "It was also used as a medicine to heal many things, but today American Indians suffer from the largest rates of smoking than any other racial and ethnic group. They are dying of lung cancer at higher rates and, in order to address those disparities, we need to respect traditional use of tobacco while trying to discourage recreational use."

By connecting directly with communities, the researchers in the CCPH Program are able to address individual barriers related to cancer prevention and treatment. And they are passionate about the difference they're making in the health of these communities.

"It's exciting to work at the KU Cancer Center, alongside some of the nation's best researchers and have an impact in advancing the science of cancer control throughout the country," says Ellerbeck. "It's the diversity of Kansas that really makes us a rich cancer center and makes us the right place to be doing cancer control research."

Last modified: Sep 16, 2013