Cancer Center Launches Evidence-Based Initiative with 40 African American Churches

By Shipra Shukla

Building on UCSF’s commitment to eliminate health disparities and promote research-tested interventions, the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center recently initiated the Abundant Life Health Ministries Initiative through its Community Advisory Board. UCSF defines a health ministry as a “special mission that integrates faith and health for their members and the communities they serve.” The kickoff event, titled “A Gathering for Faith, Health and Community,” on Sept. 13 in Oakland drew about 170 people representing 40 churches from around the San Francisco Bay Area. The initiative promotes establishing and strengthening health ministries, based on intervention programs developed by health researchers working in collaboration with African American churches to reach their communities. “This is a way to translate evidence-based interventions into the community,” said Rena J. Pasick, DrPH, associate director of community education and outreach at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “A major focus of UCSF and the National Institutes of Health [NIH] is the translation into practice of scientific developments. “The church occupies a central place in the lives of African Americans,” said Pasick. “Public health practitioners, researchers and policymakers recognize this role, and are increasingly seeking to partner with church leaders and members to address health disparities in the African American community.” Among the speakers at the event was Frank E. Staggers Sr., MD, chair of the cancer center’s Community Advisory Board. Staggers referenced Martin Luther King Jr., who strongly believed that one of the best ways to mobilize African American communities was through the church. The idea behind partnering with faith-based organizations centers around both outreach and trust. “I credit the leadership of the cancer center for understanding that trust needs to be built in order to impact the health of a community,” said Pasick. “We need to go to the community – first, to partner in order to effect change, and second, to seek participation in research.” Two rigorously tested and nationally disseminated interventions, Body & Soul and the Witness Project, were presented at the event. Body & Soul encourages a healthy diet and fitness through a commitment to incorporating health into four pillars: pastoral leadership, changes in church policies that demonstrate a healthy diet, special events that include a health component, and peer counseling. Body & Soul has been shown to effectively increase the number of daily servings of fruits and vegetables that African Americans eat. Five years ago, the National Cancer Institute launched the program nationwide. The Witness Project promotes breast and cervical cancer awareness by recruiting cancer survivors to serve as “witnesses” in church about cancer and to act as community role models. The project has been developed and rigorously tested in clinical trials. At the request of the Community Advisory Board’s faith-based subcommittee, a third initiative on prostate cancer was also launched at the event. Since there is no church-based, tested program addressing prostate education for African American men, UCSF researchers and members of the faith-based subcommittee will work with interested churches to develop and pilot-test such a program. Mack Roach, MD, professor and chair of the UCSF Department of Radiation Oncology, presented a workshop on prostate cancer at the event. According to the NIH, church attendance is an important correlate of positive health care practices, especially for the most vulnerable subgroups within the African American community, which include the uninsured and chronically ill. UCSF sees community and faith-based organizations as offering an opportunity to improve the health of underserved populations. “One of the most valuable elements in reducing health disparities is the will of the people to want to improve,” said Roach. “The Abundant Life gathering was about the will of the people.”