Cancer Prevention Starts at Home (with a Party)
In Washington State, researchers are sponsoring "home health parties" to raise awareness about cancer and encourage people to take advantage of free screenings. The goal is to reduce health disparities among underserved populations.
"We think of these as Tupperware parties without the sale," says Dr. Beti Thompson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Her team is testing the experimental strategy in Hispanic communities in the Lower Yakima Valley.
The researchers recruit families to host the gatherings in their homes and then send a trained health educator to lead a discussion on a specific cancer topic. Parties last about an hour and may include 5 to 8 family members and friends (sometimes more). The events are informal with lots of time for questions.
"We talk about how cancer develops and the importance of screening," says Ilda Islas, also of Fred Hutchinson. The information is usually new to the families, and many do not know that they can take steps to prevent cancer, she adds.
The cancer topic changes every 6 months. The researchers plan to cover cervical, colon, prostate, breast, lung, and skin cancers. Six months after a party, the health educators, or promotoras, follow up to see if a family has questions or would like a refresher course.
Preliminary data from the study are encouraging. Nearly a quarter of the 70 individuals who attended recent parties on colon cancer (and were eligible for screening) subsequently underwent screening.
"We think those are pretty good odds," says Dr. Thompson, who is supported by NCI's Community Networks Program. "This is a unique strategy, and it appears to work well."
It works well for some of the same reasons that Tupperware parties do. People learn about cancer among friends, often without having to leave their homes. Parties can occur in the evenings after work, and no babysitters are needed because the whole family is involved.
Children often hear the same discussions as their parents. The family is central in Hispanic culture, and family members can provide social support for individuals who are considering cancer screening, notes Dr. Thompson.
Another important element is the promotoras. These individuals are recruited from the communities they serve. They know the culture and understand how to reach their audiences, which may include friends and acquaintances.
"The parties are a great experience," says Ms. Islas. "People receive us with open arms, and they express their gratitude for the information we have shared with them."
The researchers first experienced this welcoming response several years ago as they went door to door, telling families about the dangers of pesticides. Many families invited them inside to talk, and this led to the current strategy.
Once the home health parties began, the news spread by word of mouth. Ms. Islas initially went to community events and churches to recruit families, but she now handles requests from people wanting to host parties. The researchers plan to publish their results and lessons learned. If the pilot program is a success, they say, the strategy could be adapted for other Hispanic and Latino populations. The primary materials are large flip charts that can be carried from home to home.
"We've been absolutely amazed by how many families have opened their doors to us," says Dr. Thompson. "Most people are very happy to have someone talk to them about health issues."
By Edward R. Winstead