Photo courtesy TTUHSC El Paso / Alumni & Friends Magazine

TTUHSC El Paso faculty use health education to reduce cancer risk in Hispanic populations

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States; however, in the past 40 years, cervical cancer cases and fatalities have declined thanks to an increase in screening methods and education.

With a goal of treating and preventing cervical cancer in the Borderland, physicians and researchers at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso are taking an in-depth look at the disease and how it affects Hispanic populations in particular.

Graph courtesy TTUHSC El Paso / Alumni & Friends Magazine

The Cancer Prevention and Control Division of TTUHSC El Paso’s Center of Emphasis in Cancer is working on large community projects involving cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination.

“We have several ongoing studies examining the best methods of health promotion regarding cervical cancer and HPV in the community and are investigating different HPV profiles in Hispanic women along the border,” said Navkiran K. Shokar, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Division. “Our studies provide information about effective ways to promote cervical cancer screening among high-risk women.”

Lead investigators working in this area at TTUHSC El Paso are Jennifer C. Molokwu, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor and director of medical student education in the Department of Family and Community Medicine; Jessica Calderón-Mora, Dr.P.H., research instructor in the Department of Molecular and Translational Medicine; and Dr. Shokar.

In 2020, the three investigators published in the research journal “Cancer Control” an investigation of HPV’s association with the prevalence of cervical cancer in El Paso and other border counties.

“Our target population consisted of uninsured low-income women living close to the U.S.-Mexico border, a population that suffers a disparate burden of cervical cancer,” the study states. The study also discovered that a majority of women had not been vaccinated and many were positive for HPV.

Photo courtesy TTUHSC El Paso / Alumni & Friends Magazine

Understanding the need for preventive programming and vaccine distribution across West Texas, Dr. Calderón-Mora and Dr. Molokwu established Tiempo de Vacunarte 2, a cancer prevention program focusing on cancers caused by HPV.

The HPV vaccine is the only existing vaccine that can prevent cancer, but it can cost close to $250 per dose.

Graph courtesy TTUHSC El Paso / Alumni & Friends Magazine

Tiempo de Vacunarte 2 provides education on HPV and the HPV vaccine, no-cost vaccinations and follow-up reminders for all doses of the series for patients of all genders from 9-26 years old. The program focuses on serving uninsured communities, but addresses barriers for those who do have insurance.

For Dr. Calderón-Mora, the program takes on a personal note. “As a mom of two boys, I feel all the more passionate in providing the vaccine as a form of cancer prevention to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” she said.

In 2019, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded a $1.9 million grant to TTUHSC El Paso for Tiempo de Vacunarte 2.

A second CPRIT-funded prevention program, De Casa en Casa 3, began in 2013 and offers services for women between the ages of 21 and 65.

The program provides health education on cervical cancer and HPV through community health workers, or promotores. Promotores also use narrative videos adapted from the AMIGAS program to educate the community. AMIGAS is a bilingual educational outreach program that assists health care workers in increasing cervical cancer screening among Hispanics.

The program has proved to be life-changing for some of its participants, as screening has helped detect cervical abnormalities before they became cancerous.

“When we see someone with a precancerous lesion that’s been removed, it’s satisfying to know that a potential cancer was stopped from developing,” said Dr. Shokar. “It means so much that someone’s mother, sister, grandmother or daughter was saved the pain of cancer. It makes everything we do worthwhile and meaningful, and encourages us to try even harder for our community.”

Ultimately, prevention programs like these follow TTUHSC El Paso’s mission of providing high quality care and health education for all in the community. “Our overall goal is to reduce the burden of cervical cancer along the U.S.-Mexico border by facilitating early diagnosis and access to treatment,” said Dr. Calderón-Mora.

This article originally appeared in TTUHSC El Paso’s Alumni & Friends Magazine