U.Va. Cancer Center surveys underrepresented populations on cancer services

The Cancer Center contacted people across the Commonwealth and into West Virginia to gain new insights into cancer risk factors, prevention and treatment


The University’s Cancer Center is one of 71 centers in the United States designated by the National Cancer Institute to conduct clinical, scientific and population research in an effort to create innovative methods of combating cancer.

Courtesy University of Virginia

Regardless of hometown or background, many individuals are affected by cancer. The University’s Cancer Center is seeking to improve their services — such as broadening cancer prevention efforts and awareness — across the state by conducting a survey designed to identify the needs of residents in 94 counties stretching from Northern Virginia to West Virginia. Once compiled, the Center hopes to use the responses to illuminate ways they can better serve the needs of cancer patients. 

Researchers at the Cancer Center, together with the University’s Center for Survey Research, formulated questions to determine cancer risk factors specific to different demographics and locations. With a response period stretching from the summer of 2019 to the end of the year or the beginning of next year, the Cancer Center plans to analyze the data and ultimately transform the participants’ replies into concrete improvements in their encounters with cancer. 

In particular, the survey prioritizes participants in underserved rural and minority populations. Researchers and clinicians intend to incorporate the feedback from these often underrepresented groups into practical measures that will improve educational and medical cancer services for the public as a whole.

“We developed a fairly detailed health-risk questionnaire, which basically covers risk factors for cancer but also covers issues for cancer treatment if someone or someone in your family is dealing with cancer,” said Rajesh Balkrishnan, professor of public health sciences and health director of the Cancer Center.

The University’s Cancer Center is one of 71 centers in the United States designated by the National Cancer Institute to conduct clinical, scientific and population research in an effort to create innovative methods of combating cancer.  In 2018, the NCI estimated that cancer caused more than 1.7 million deaths nationwide. 

The NCI funded the recent Cancer Center’s survey, along with similar surveys spearheaded by the majority of its centers. One of these centers — the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University — worked with the University to collect consistent data from the entirety of the Commonwealth. 

The survey aims to assess the availability of cancer screenings and basic medical care. Topics range from education and income to personal and family history of cancer, resulting treatment and survivorship. 

According to Balkrishnan and Roger T. Anderson, associate director of population sciences at the Cancer Center, personnel distributed surveys by mail, phone and even Facebook and Instagram. They hope to receive replies from 2,000 people representing the diverse socioeconomic conditions, ethnicities and lifestyles in their catchment area.

“Many of these groups often do not participate in surveys, and often their viewpoints aren’t included in some of the data,” Anderson said. “We are making a special effort to oversample these underserved groups to make sure we hear their voices and their viewpoints in their responses.”  

Cancer Center Director Thomas P. Loughran, Jr. highlighted disparities between populations, citing that the University’s catchment area contain both the richest and poorest counties in the country. He then echoed the need to not only discern the challenges facing distinct and contrasting localities but also to translate that knowledge into tangible benefits for constituents.

“We asked ourselves … now that [we] know about the problem, how do [we] educate and communicate to the community and plan interventions to prevent [major cancer problems] from happening, diagnose them early and treat established cancers?” Loughran said.

In the coming months, the Cancer Center will continue to compile data from their catchment area. As of early August, Balkrishnan said that approximately 200 people had completed and returned the survey. By the end of this year and the beginning of 2020, researchers will begin to examine the results, focusing on people’s access to preventative measures and treatment, as well as potential habits that could promote cancer development.

“Once we get data for our Cancer Center, we can begin to mine and really look at what are some of the standout issues in each of these areas,” Anderson said. “We can then design interventions to bring to those areas to see what really works the best and how we can solve the problems in accessing information, helping people lower their risk and get access to cancer screenings more effectively.”

While the details for such interventions depend on the actual survey findings and subsequent analysis, the Cancer Center still has ideas for ways to enhance care in the future and a potential frameworking for implementing them. For example, Balkrishnan mentioned that expanding telemedicine options that employ mobile phone technologies will help provide expert care to community members with and without cancer in urban and rural areas. Anderson pointed out that the Cancer Center’s standing partnerships with local organizations can also offer support to their respective residents. 

“We can work with the community to target and identify certain topics and then go out to those communities where the need is greatest and work with community partners to solve those problems,” Anderson said.

The Cancer Center will present the results of its survey and propose methods of addressing the needs of the local population to NCI in May of 2020.

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