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Initiatives inspire Kentuckians to take charge of health

One of the UK Markey Cancer Center’s most important goals is to educate as many people as possible about cancer prevention in an effort to decrease the high rates of incidence and mortality across the state. The cancer center is doing just that through two new cancer education programs curated specifically for youth and individuals with disabilities in Kentucky.

Both outreach initiatives use Markey’s Get Fit, Be Smart, Don’t Start program as a foundation. The program tackles a myriad of cancer prevention topics, including nutrition, exercise, smoking, tanning bed use, addiction and screenings, and provides general health and wellness information. Using interactive displays, in-person presentations and educational tools tailored to each population, the programs help participants understand how decisions now can affect their health, including their chances of getting cancer, later in life.

“If your cell phone quit today, you would run as fast as you could to whatever store you needed and have it fixed. But if you start feeling bad, you should have the same passion to fix your body. Your body is not replaceable, so we need to take good care of it and pay attention to it,” said Melissa Hounshell, Markey Cancer Center community outreach director and curriculum creator.

Youth Health Ambassadors Program

What makes this program particularly impactful is that adults don’t teach the curriculum: Students do.

After presenting the Get Fit, Be Smart, Don’t Start program in classrooms across Kentucky for several years, Hounshell came up with the idea to have the students themselves teach their peers about the importance of cancer prevention. So she reached out to the Highlands Health System in Prestonsburg, Ky., – a Markey affiliate – and set her concept in motion.

“By using these high school students who are well-respected and known in their communities, we can reach more kids and explain the importance and value of good health and wellness throughout their lives,” said Hounshell. “So many times younger kids follow the lead of their parents or grandparents. But often, especially in Kentucky, the adults aren’t taking good care of themselves. So we’re trying to change that cycle to make our health a priority throughout life.”

To begin the Youth Health Ambassadors Program pilot, Markey and Highlands selected six motivated, health-conscious Kentucky high school juniors from a pool of applicants and trained them on the program’s curriculum. The students then reached out to their former elementary, junior high and high school teachers to set up presentations in their classrooms.

One of the pilot program’s participants, Jaxson Ratliff, a Johnson Central High School junior, is well aware of the state’s high rates of cancer but hopes to gain a better understanding of the health issues in his area of Eastern Kentucky.

“By training these high school students who are well-respected and known in their communities, we can reach more kids and explain the importance and value of good health and wellness throughout their lives” - Melissa Hounshell

“I applied for the program in order to bring health education to our area and educate people on topics that are absolutely crucial to their health,” Ratliff said. “I can be a voice and an advocate for change in an area where change is feared sometimes, and I believe this starts with the youth.”

At the end of their senior year, these peer advisors will receive a scholarship to put toward their future education – possibly continuing their journey to share cancer prevention education and starting a career in the medical field, as Ratliff aspires to do.

Melissa Hounshell and Morgan Turner
Melissa Hounshell, Markey’s community outreach director, and Morgan Turner, HDI’s health education specialist, presented at Cypress Community Services in Lexington in September 2018.

Inclusive Health Program

In another partnership for cancer prevention education Hounshell and the Markey Cancer Center Community Outreach Team are collaborating with the UK Human Development Institute (HDI) to roll out the Inclusive Health Program, which is mindfully adapted from the Get Fit, Be Smart, Don’t Start curriculum. The program is geared specifically toward adults with varying disabilities across the state. There is a high need for cancer prevention education among this population because people with disabilities experience cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease three times more often than the general population.

“Over 33 percent of adults in Kentucky have some type of disability1 – one of the highest rates in the nation – and they’re not getting the attention they need as far as health and wellness education, like understanding the importance of getting a mammogram, a Pap test, a colonoscopy or other prevention measures,” said Hounshell.

The Health and Wellness Initiative team within HDI works to raise awareness of health disparities, including helping individuals with disabilities and their support networks take charge of their health. Hounshell will be presenting the Inclusive Health Program in community organizations across the state along with co-facilitator Morgan Turner, who is HDI’s health education specialist and has a disability.

“There are immense disparities among individuals with disabilities when it comes to cancer screening,” said Megan Jaspersen, health and wellness coordinator at HDI. “Our biggest goal for this program is to speak directly to individuals with disabilities and educate them on the importance of advocating for themselves with the doctor, asking about these screenings and taking a proactive role in their own health.”

Both teams are excited about this new and important Inclusive Health Program and plan to expand the initiative to provide regular statewide cancer screening events specifically for individuals with disabilities. They also have high hopes for the initiative’s impact on cancer incidence and mortality rates among this population of Kentuckians.

“We want to create a culture of more engagement and more advocacy for good health, which will, in turn, foster partnerships between the disability community and the health community,” said Lindsey Mullis, health and wellness program director at HDI. “Our goal is for individuals with disabilities to take better care of themselves and we, as health professionals, can do a better job of taking care of them. This is an incredible opportunity to start that conversation.”

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