Researchers work to improve prevention of cancer among Latino, American Indian communities

Researchers at the KU Medical Center have been awarded more than $4.4 million to improve prevention and the odds of surviving cancer for rural Latino and American Indian communities in Kansas.

A group of scientists at KU Medical Center have spent years establishing partnerships with Latino and American Indian communities throughout the state. This work has led to innovative, culturally appropriate initiatives such as All Nations Breath of Life, a smoking-cessation program for American Indians that recognizes the traditional use of tobacco for spiritual and cultural purposes, and the Touch to Screen project that uses Spanish-language computer kiosks to inform Latinos of medication, cancer screening and counseling resources in safety net clinics. Also, over the past two years, the medical center-based Midwest Cancer Alliance has strengthened its network of health professionals leading the fight against cancer throughout Kansas, building a clinical trial infrastructure and support system for cancer patients from Kansas City, Mo., to Goodland, near the Colorado border.

With the new award from the National Institutes of Health, medical center researchers will capitalize on these relationships to create the Kansas Community Cancer Health Disparities Network to address the needs of populations that are drastically underserved.

“It’s a big deal when you get diagnosed with cancer and have to drive a couple of hours for treatment,” said Allen Greiner, associate professor of family medicine and the principal investigator on the project. “These people may not have oncologists within 200 miles. They may not have health insurance. And they’re seriously high risk, as our colon cancer screening research shows.”

Greiner will lead a dozen researchers specializing in areas such as social psychology, public health, epidemiology, rural and primary care, telemedicine, medical anthropology and biostatistics.

The Kansas Community Cancer Health Disparities Network includes an array of collaborating organizations, including the United Mexican American Ministries Clinic in Garden City, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the regional Coalition of Hispanic Women Against Cancer, the Kansas Physicians Engaged in Prevention Research — a rural primary care practice-based research network — the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved and the KU Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, among others.

“In partnership, we will develop an extensive and robust collaborative for developing cancer prevention, treatment and research programs across our large, rural and increasingly diverse state,” Greiner said.

“We are very excited about the opportunity and the potential impact this network has to make on the community,” said Stephanie Waggoner, chief executive officer of the United Mexican American Ministries Clinic in Garden City. “Partnering with Dr. Greiner and his team will allow additional services and education to reach uninsured and underinsured populations in southwest Kansas. Many people don’t have the resources to obtain healthcare and don’t really know how to navigate the healthcare system, which contributes to health disparities. This program will assist with that and provide other services that currently aren’t available.”

Beyond funding the efforts to meet a crucial need for underserved Kansans, the new award strengthens The KU Cancer Center’s position as it seeks to earn National Cancer Institute designation.

“Fewer than 3 percent of all adult cancer patients participate in clinical trials. Participation is even lower for patients from vulnerable populations,” said Roy A. Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. “We have built outstanding relationships with communities across the state, and this approach holds great promise in increasing minority participation in cancer clinical trials.”

Greiner estimated that the majority of grants such as the medical center’s new award go to cancer centers that already have NCI designation. Though the KU Cancer Center is not yet NCI-designated — it will apply for designation in September 2011 — this award, Greiner says, “speaks to our increased community prevention effort.”

Funders wanted to see projects that were ambitious, Greiner says, and this project is far-reaching.

“Without dramatic changes in the direct involvement of community members, health disparities will keep festering in urban and rural neighborhoods all across the country,” he said. “Most people don’t think of Kansas as a highly diverse state. But it has significant pockets of diversity — and serious health disparities across large geographic regions, involving minorities, the poor, the elderly, the geographically isolated and others.”

The good news, Greiner said, is that Kansas is highly networked, and a broad array of organizations can help inspire greater community participation in clinical research.

“We’re pulling in several underserved groups,” he said, “and trying to make things better for them.”

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