September 25, 2012

Cornell Professor’s Research Aids Hopi Community

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For Prof. Angela Gonzales, development sociology, her birthday is more than just a celebration filled with cake and presents. To celebrate her 50th on Tuesday, she embarked on a 1,539-mile bike trek from Bellingham, Wash., to Ventura, Calif., to raise money for the Hopi Cancer Assistance Fund — a cause close to her heart.

Although Gonzales — who was born on the Hopi Reservation in New Mexico — is now far away from home, she continues to give back to her Native American community through her work at Cornell.

In 2010, Gonzales was given a five-year grant from the National Institute of Health for her project researching human papillomavirus and the Hopi community. Certain strains of HPV cause cervical cancer, which is the most common type of cancer among Hopi women.

The project is comprised of two studies: the first, already completed, explored whether or not Hopi women were getting tested for HPV. Results indicated that only about 30 percent of Hopi women were getting regularly screened for the disease, as opposed to about 70 percent of women in the United States at large, according to Gonzales.

The second study will test testing whether or not Hopi women are more likely to be screened if they can use an at-home test for HPV.

“For a lot of reasons, women just aren’t going into the clinic to get screened,” Gonzales said. “So what we’re testing is the at-home HPV test, which allows women to collect samples themselves. We’re trying to find out if it’s an effective alternative.”

One student who worked on the project with Gonzales described her work as “essential.”

“The Hopi are severely underserved, and by identifying barriers to vaccination by studying them and finding out about their particular beliefs, we can help them medically,” Ajay Kailas ’13 said.

Part of the reason cancer is such an issue for the Hopi is that Western medicine can sometimes seem to conflict with the Hopi’s traditional beliefs, Gonzales said.

“[The Hopi believe] it’s through our thoughts and prayers and actions that we bring good things into our lives and bad things into our lives. Some people feel cancer is a bad thing called into life,” Gonzales said. “When you give voice to these things, it’s like you’re giving them a certain power. People are very cautious to talk about cancer in their family.”

As a result, she added, women are reluctant to get tested and vaccinated.

Gonzales and her team have had to get around this reluctance by finding a “culturally appropriate way” to convey information.

“Some health messages instill fear, which doesn’t necessarily compel people to take positive action. Our goal is to empower people to have control over [their] own health,” Gonzales said.

Her team conducted hands-on research and maintained close contact with the Hopi by creating surveys and focus groups, in which a small groups of people gave feedback on handouts before they were distributed to a larger group.

Jana Wilbricht ’14, who produced educational print materials for the project this summer, said, “It’s really good that we have a lot of direct contact and [that] we get a lot of feedback. Whenever I create a brochure I get a direct reaction from community representatives.”

As her birthday approaches, Gonzales says she is “nervous but excited” for the bike trip.

While she has been completing shorter trips with WomanTours — a small, all-female bicycle touring company — for the past six years, for this birthday, she wanted to do something that was “a personal milestone,” she said.

Gonzales is keeping a blog to document her progress on her bike journey.

Original Author: Julia Pascale