For family nurse practitioner LeAnn Perkins, health is a journey made up of goals and decisions. “Each person has a different objective for their life and different choices that they will make about how to live their life,” she says thoughtfully. But at the same time, the different results of those choices can be readily apparent. “As a health-care professional, I see the difference in people who have done a good job of taking care of themselves versus those who haven’t,” she says.
Perkins knows that the challenges and frustrations of everyday life can make carving out time for self-care tricky. But according to her—it’s a trick worth mastering because the choices in your health journey are all connected. “How we live in our 20s, 30s and 40s really affect our health in our 50s, 60s and 70s,” she says.
Throughout her career in healthcare, Perkins has worked to help communities take active care of themselves. “I personally enjoy life more when I’m taking the best care of myself,” she explains. “When I’m eating well, exercising and taking care of my physical and psychological wellbeing—that’s when I’m at my best.”
And that’s the feeling she wants her patients to experience.
When we spoke with LeAnn Perkins, she walked us through her career, her approach to health and the work she sees as her mission.
Q: What is your approach toward care in health and wellness?
A: I believe that everyone has the right to choose the way they want to live, be it healthy or unhealthy. However, as a health-care provider, if I can provide someone with information about a healthier life option then they may learn something that could help them benefit from making better health choices. I enjoy providing information to patients and people who are interested in the information and truly want to learn how to make changes in their life. If a person is not ready for information and is not ready to make a change then that’s okay, too. I will often provide patients with printed information for them to refer to later at a time when they are more ready to hear the information that could help them make lifestyle changes. I always try to gently guide patients and be more of a supportive coach—not a stern teacher or authority figure.
Q: What drew you to work with cancer patients and survivors? Do you see it as a calling? Did life naturally lead you here?
A: I would say that life naturally led me to work with cancer patients and survivors. My career led me organically to a position at the Prisma Health Upstate Cancer Institute, and once I got there I felt like I had found a new sense of purpose and passion. I joined the new Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship (CIOS) and focused on giving my best to patients and survivors. It has been very rewarding to work at CIOS where I feel I have had the opportunity to grow along as the Center has expanded to accommodate more patients. Today, collectively, we see between 850 and 900 patients per month, and that number is growing.
Q: Tell us more about your work at CIOS.
A: At CIOS, I helped grow several programs that we have available, such as the Lifetime Clinic, smoking cessation program (certified in the Quit Smart Smoking Cessation Leadership Program), the Lung Cancer Screening Program, as well as working with cancer survivors on long term and late effects and managing overall cancer survivorship. In 2017 I began working on a new project, the Center for Cancer Prevention and Wellness (CCPW) with our Cancer Institute director, Dr. W. Larry Gluck. We started a Breast Cancer Prevention Clinic (BCPC) for women who are at increased risk of breast cancer. Here women are counseled on ways to decrease the risk of cancer, and on recommended surveillance and screening for early detection of breast cancer.
We have also developed a cancer prevention study called Prevent Cancer—Greenville. This study is for anyone over the age of 18 who speaks English. Participants need not be cancer survivors, but if they have a history of cancer they are not excluded. In preparation for this cancer prevention study, a participant fills out a health-care evaluation, family history, diet assessment, activity assessment and quality of life assessment. During the visit, the participant undergoes a series of evaluations for 19 different cancers with modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors and medical history. Each patient is provided a summary informing them about what they can do to reduce their risk of cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations, as well as AICR’s Third Expert Report and Continuous Update Project (CUP), are used to guide the visit with the patient, which is conducted by a nurse navigator. We currently have 650 participants and continue to actively recruit more. This study educates the participants on ways to reduce their risk of cancer now and provides us with a way to study changes in their bodies long term.
Q: Can you tell us about your work at Prisma Health and how it serves the cancer community?
A: We offer counseling, support groups, nutrition and genetic counseling, chaplain services and physical therapy for lymphedema. Our Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship and our Center for Cancer Prevention and Wellness are very well developed. This is due, in part, to having a robust philanthropy department that raises funds for a range of services that are beneficial to patients but expensive to provide.
Q: How did you discover AICR and our resources/research?
A: I first discovered AICR’s Third Expert Report in 2018 when I was doing research for a cancer prevention study. I had a copy of the report summary prior to attending the National Cancer Institute (NCI) summer curriculum in 2018. Since I had based much of my cancer prevention study around the American Institute for Cancer Research’s Recommendations, I was using this as my platform when I presented my project that summer. My summer NCI project was my Prevent Cancer—Greenville cancer prevention study visit. My advisor at NCI told me that I should use the AICR summary of conclusions from the Continuous Update Project page to help with my risk stratification of cancer causes. She was pleased when I pulled out the book and showed her that I already had a copy!
Q: How do you and/or how does Prisma Health utilize AICR’s resources?
A: We use almost all of the educational tools, resources and brochures provided by AICR. These are given to patients during visits; patients are then referred to the AICR website. My dietitian colleague at CIOS uses AICR’s educational materials during classes that she teaches for cancer survivors. She also uses three of AICR’s brochures: Guide to a Plant-Based Diet, The Cancer Fighters in Your Food and 10 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Cancer during individual consultations with patients.
In addition to the already available printed or downloadable educational materials available from AICR, my colleagues and I developed web links and a resource guide to some of AICR’s programs: the Healthy10 Challenge and Cancer Health Check. We also created a quick guide to AICR’s healthy eating resources by including a web link to AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer and AICR’s Healthy Recipes.
Q: Have you seen AICR’s resources impact the community outside of Prisma Health? If so, how?
A: Yes, I have. One example: at NESS Fest, a popular two-day wellness festival that’s held in a small Greenville baseball stadium, my colleagues and I presented “Food for Thought: Lower Your Risk of Cancer.” AICR’s research informed a lot of our work—and we gave all attendees a number of AICR handouts—including AICR’s 10 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Cancer brochure.
A number of panel discussions and Q&A sessions were all rooted in the 10 Ways brochure—it was a direct way to see education in action. Attendees really seemed to take to the material—everything was well received and we had positive feedback from attendees.
Q: Have you seen the public awareness around nutrition/lifestyle and cancer risk evolving? If so, how?
A: I do believe that I have seen public awareness around nutrition and lifestyle and cancer risk evolving these past few years. I have attended several conferences that are strictly about cancer prevention and lifestyle, and I am sure that this has made me more aware of how many people are paying attention to this kind of information. I also see that people around me (care providers and clinicians) are talking more about nutrition and lifestyle than they did earlier in my career. In my department, the Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship, five of us have become Certified Lifestyle Medicine providers (by the American Board of Lifestyle Medicine) in the past year and a half.
I notice that as we educate patients and families on lifestyle factors, cancer risk and AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations they share that information with others and I hear other people tell me things that they have learned from people who were either at the lecture or were told about the lecture.
I believe that we are getting the word out—and public awareness is increasing.
Q: How do Prisma Health’s staff benefit from using AICR’s resources?
A: Having AICR resources means we have reputable, informative, easy-to-digest tools, brochures and handouts on hand. Our patients and cancer prevention participants benefit from AICR’s resources—and our employees do, too.
In addition to the handouts and printed materials, the AICR website is a wealth of information: I enjoy browsing their website and learning more about cancer prevention. Providing web links to different programs, the recipes and the website to all of our patients and study participants is helpful. In addition, I know that I can trust the website to be accurate and engaging. I don’t have to question what a patient will think when he or she looks at the website or wonder if they might run across information that is counterproductive to what I am teaching, or that I would question the research behind.
Personally, I have learned a lot over the past three years from AICR and their annual research conference. The AICR conference is engaging and illuminating—at one conference I attended it was fascinating to listen to the research presented on the link between diet, obesity, physical activity and cancer.
I had been using AICR’s research in my own work for a while by that point and listening to the researchers present the information that I had been sharing with patients was beyond informative. It made me wish that all the people who I had spoken to about cancer prevention could have been at the conference to hear it themselves. As if hearing it from the researchers would convince them even more than hearing it from me!
Q: How do AICR’s resources help Prisma Health fulfill its mission?
A: The mission of the Prisma Health Upstate Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Prevention and Wellness is to spread the word regarding the fact that the majority of cancers are preventable with lifestyle modifications. Public outreach is to be combined with clinical research evaluating techniques for detecting cancer at its earliest and potentially most treatable stage.
Our mission aligns perfectly with the research and mission of AICR to increase understanding of the relationship between nutrition, lifestyle and cancer and we rely heavily on AICR’s educational resources and tools to help us communicate with and educate our patients.
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If you share our passion for cancer prevention and quality survivorship, we would love to hear from you. Whatever your experience has been — whether you are a patient, caregiver, or loved one — AICR would be happy to add your story to this tapestry.