A recently awarded $6.5 million grant will be used to enhance the Appalachia Community Cancer Network by focusing on fighting obesity through churches.
The key to success will be community representatives who craft the programs to best fit the area where they live, said Dr. Mark Dignan, principal investigator for the project, which is based in the University of Kentucky Prevention Research Center.
"If the problem is in the community, the solution is in the community," Dignan said.
The money, which comes from the National Cancer Institute, will create health and exercise programs aimed at curbing obesity associated with a variety of cancers, Dignan said.
The programs will be based in 20 churches in five states. The Body Mass Index of church members will be taken before and after the projects to see what works best, he said.
The network, headquartered at UK, will serve the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Research will be conducted at Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Tech and West Virginia University.
The new grant money will enable the network to extend health education work that has been funded under a similar five-year grant and add a research component, Dignan said.
It made sense to partner with faith-based groups because churches are the cornerstone of many rural communities, said David Reese, a community representative for the network from Hazard.
"Church leaders are some of the best and brightest and most educated people that are in a community," said Reese, who is also an epidemiologist for the Kentucky River District Health Department.
Occasionally there is some bias against research in the region, Reese said, because too often people come in, take information and never report back to the community about what is done with it. But Dignan's team has earned trust in Perry County, and residents know that they are in for the long haul, he added.
"A lot of times, academics make decisions that are better made by people in the community," Dignan said. For example, the exercise and health programs put in place over the next five years will be tailored to meet the needs of specific congregations and communities.
Though health education has been taking place in the region for a while, Dignan said, it's too soon to see an actual reduction in the number of cancer cases but "what we have done is create the foundation to make that happen." The result is taking what is learned at the 20 churches and creating a model that can be replicated on a broader scale.
Reese, who was recently treated for colon cancer, is optimistic. "I think we are going to see some tremendous advances."