Local churches may seem like odd places to perform cancer research, but for Lorna Haughton McNeill, Ph.D., the pairing is only natural.
McNeill’s life in the church began at an early age – her mother was a reverend in an American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New York City – and she’s spent her entire life involved with predominantly African-American churches. So she’s well accustomed to the congregations’ close-knit, community-centered culture.
Therefore, when designing a program to engage African-Americans in cancer prevention research, it made sense to the associate professor of Health Disparities Research to partner with churches. That collaboration became the foundation of Project CHURCH (Creating a Higher Understanding of Cancer Research and Community Health) in 2008.
“Project CHURCH started to address a need for MD Anderson to have a tangible focus on the African-American community here in Houston,” says McNeill.
“African-Americans are an important population because of their high cancer incidence and mortality rates, as well as their relative population size here.”
In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, African-Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers.
Project CHURCH began as a large-scale research study involving 2,500 church members from three congregations. It was designed to understand the social, environmental and lifestyle factors driving cancer risk among African-Americans – factors such as tobacco use, obesity, physical activity, neighborhood environment and social relationships.
At the same time, McNeill wanted to provide church members with opportunities to take part in activities that promote healthy living and lower cancer risk.
From a project to a partnership
The effort has been tremendously successful, leading to the publication of roughly 20 scientific articles on cancer risk in the African-American population. Today, the program hosts a variety of initiatives involving over 80 churches in the greater-Houston area.
“The CHURCH partnership,” as McNeill now likes to call it, is less about individual projects and more about symbiotic relationships that continually engage African-Americans in new research and educational opportunities.
“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for MD Anderson to service the African-American community through these relationships,” McNeill says. “For participants, it gives them an opportunity to be a part of the innovative studies trying to help people improve their lives.”
Those research efforts include testing new and unique approaches to improving diet and exercise in order to promote weight loss and prevent obesity, which is a major risk factor for African-Americans.
Through a research study named Project FRESH (Food Resources Encouraging Sustainable Health), MD Anderson is combating the health problems associated with living in Houston’s food deserts – areas without much access to healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Members of New Faith Church in Central Southwest Houston who enroll in Project FRESH receive two free, 15-pound bags of fresh produce each week for eight weeks, as well as recipes and health tips. Produce is provided by Brighter Bites, a nonprofit organization that makes nutrition education and fresh fruits and vegetables available at schools in Houston, Dallas and Austin. The feasibility of implementation in churches was tested as well. McNeill is studying how this intervention improves church members’ diet and well being.
To increase physical activity, she developed a mind-body exercise similar to yoga or tai chi. Church members have embraced it, and she continues to investigate how the activity is changing their behavior.
She also created Move to Quit, a study designed to help African-Americans quit smoking through exercise.
Help for survivors
Project CHURCH also is working across Houston to implement Active Living after Cancer, an evidence-based program that teaches survivors to increase their physical activity through simple lifestyle changes.
When approached with this program, Brenda Clayton’s answer is a testament to the strength of relationships between MD Anderson and partner churches.
“When I knew that MD Anderson was involved, I knew we could not do anything but accept it,” says Clayton, a retired MD Anderson nurse who leads the health and wellness ministry at the Fountain of Praise Church in Southwest Houston.
Rhonda Haralson, a Fountain of Praise member, decided to participate after treatment for early-stage breast cancer left her fatigued.
Interested in being more active and reducing her risk of recurrence, the opportunity came at just the right time.
“I’ve definitely been more active and purposeful as far as setting a goal and doing something every day,” says Haralson. “I think I’m more informed about my lifestyle and cancer risk.”
More than that, though, Haralson says the program offers an opportunity to bond with other cancer survivors at her church.
“I didn’t know any of these ladies before the sessions, but we’ll have a bond going forward thanks to the program,” she says. “It’s helpful to bring spiritual life and healthy life all together.”
Clayton says there’s an obvious role for church to play in members’ spiritual and physical health.
“I think the church has to look beyond the spiritual needs,” she says. “We have a lot of people with other concerns here, and they look to us for direction.”
McNeill hopes to offer even more health-related programs to churches in the future. And, unlike most traditional health education efforts, these programs will be tested and proven to promote healthier lifestyles.
“Most people understand what they’re supposed to do to improve their health, but they often don’t know how to do it,” says McNeill.
“That’s what we’re doing through Project CHURCH. Trying to find innovative ways to help people do the things they want to do and reduce their risk of cancer.”