UH Hilo educator/cancer survivor to conduct groundbreaking cancer study

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Date: Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

A University of Hawaii at Hilo educator is embarking on a cancer survivor study, which could significantly add to the existing body of knowledge by boldly going where no others have gone before. Dr. Cheryl Ramos, assistant professor of psychology, says the study is timely given the tremendous strides researchers have made in recent years.

“Cancer survivorship is on the rise. According to the Center for Disease Control, there were approximately 10.1 million survivors in the United States as of January 2002,” Ramos said. “As survivor rates go up, so to does the interest and concern about the quality of life and related issues that confront the cancer survivor prior to and after their cancer diagnosis.”

Ramos, who earned her BA in psychology from UH Hilo before adding an MA in social psychology and PhD in community psychology from UH Manoa, brings a unique perspective to her study. She fought two bouts with Hodgkins Lymphoma in the 1970s before being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1997 and breast cancer in 2003.

“It goes without saying my own personal history has given me a special passion for this project,” Ramos said. “Surviving multiple bouts of cancer is a sobering reminder that each day of life is a gift, and that makes any additional knowledge obtained from this research even more meaningful.”

The study will be of particular interest to residents of Hawai`i’s rural communities. Ramos, who was born and raised in Paauilo, notes that cancer survivorship in those areas is currently under-researched and in need of additional study.

“Studies have found that cancer survivors in rural communities face unique challenges compared to their urban counterparts,” Ramos explained. These include providers' failure to diagnose cancer in a timely manner, difficulty accessing health care information, dealing with isolation, having to travel for treatment, feeling the financial burden, and coping with changing work.

‘Quality of life,’ a multidimensional construct of well-being that relates to physical, psychological, social, and spiritual functioning has been the primary outcome variable in much of the existing cancer survivor research. Studies on quality of life outcomes for cancer survivors have been conducted for specific types, including breast, lung, ovarian, prostrate and childhood cancers. Researchers have also looked at stressful life events, traumatic grief, social support and coping strategies and their interactions as predictors of cancer onset and cancer-related quality of life outcomes.

Ramos says existing research contains several gaps, which she hopes to address. For example, studies have examined the multi-factorial relationship between stressful life events, social support, coping and cancer-related quality of life outcomes and cancer onset, but have yet to include traumatic grief in the analysis. Nor have studies compared social support, coping strategies, and quality of life assessments on post-cancer diagnosis with pre-cancer measures. And while traumatic grief caused by death of a spouse has emerged as a predictor of cancer outset, there is some evidence to suggest it could also apply to termination of other close relationships.

"What we hope to find out is a) if stressful life events, traumatic grief, social support and use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are predictors of quality of life and cancer status; b) whether these factors differ before and after cancer is diagnosed or in non-cancer patients; c) are these variables the same for those experiencing any loss as for those who experience spousal death; and d) what specific challenges do cancer survivors living in rural Hawai`i communities face?” Ramos said.

Ramos is currently seeking 100 cancer survivors and 100 non-cancer subjects from rural Hawai`i communities to complete a series of surveys in a questionnaire packet. Participants will receive a $10 KTA gift certificate in appreciation for taking part in the project. The study will compare quality of life, stressful life events, traumatic grief, social support, and CAM for cancer survivors before and after being diagnosed. Similar measures will be obtained from the non-cancer sample.

Ramos says the project presents a wonderful opportunity for people to make a significant contribution to cancer research in their community. But she knows that recruiting 100 people on the Big Island diagnosed with cancer within the past year to take part in the study may be a challenge for a variety of reasons.

“I understand from my own experience what they are going through - coping with their diagnosis, treatment, life changes, etc.,” Ramos said. “But their participation is critical. Therefore, I encourage anyone who meets our criteria but who may be hesitant about taking part in this study to give me a call to discuss their concerns.”

In addition to participants, Ramos is also seeking funding to conduct her study. She’s already obtained a small seed grant from her department to get the study off the ground and hopes to secure substantial financial backing from a major funding source like the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other private groups.

“It’s very exciting to finally get this research underway, since it has been on my ‘to do list’ for years,” Ramos said. “After all my years of experience with cancer, and as a cancer survivor, I feel like I’ve come full circle by becoming a cancer researcher.”

For more information about the study, or to volunteer as a participant, please call (808) 756-2075.

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