Science has intrigued Leah Gonzalez for most of her life. Curious and inquisitive, Ms. Gonzalez grew up fascinated by the way the body works and she knew that working in health care would become her calling. Ms. Gonzalez began her college degree in biomedical science, but as a natural caregiver, she soon realized she wanted to interact with patients. This led her to focus on well-being and the role of nutrition in disease prevention and public health.
Ms. Gonzalez loved being part of a multidisciplinary team that developed long-term relationships to empower patients to improve their overall well-being. Still, it wasn’t quite enough. She could see how the business of health care, in addition to any personal interaction, influenced how clinical care was being practiced. She took the unusual step of earning an MBA to better understand the influence of cost containment, metrics and standards. Armed with that knowledge she was able to move from a hospital to a school system and influence the health of an entire community.
When we spoke with Ms. Gonzalez she shared some insights into how she approaches the business and practice of health care. Direct and engaging, she walked us through her experience with risk reduction and prevention through better nutrition. As the Wellness Coordinator for the Parkway School System in St. Louis, her team helps staff, teachers and their families make simple, effective and evidence-based choices that will lead them toward a healthier lifestyle.
Q: Why were you initially drawn to helping cancer patients and what direction did you take?
A: I earned my RD degree with a minor in chemistry in 2003 from Missouri State University. In 2005, while interning at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I received my RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) degree and that led me to spend four years in acute care, with rotations in orthopedic and surgical post-op and ICUs at Barnes Jewish Christian HealthCare.
I learned a lot but could see that these were minimal long-term relationships with the patients. And it was frustrating at times to see the same patients with the same issues. I felt the RDN’s role was sometimes marginalized in the hospital. Little was done with regard to prevention. As RDNs, we are trained to offer so much more. I wanted an opportunity to do just that and found it in out-patient oncology at Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis.
One of the oncologists there was very interested in integrative health and wanted to build a program to help breast cancer survivors. We used AICR’s materials in 2007 as we developed what we called LIVEN (Lifestyle Intervention with Exercise and Nutrition). I managed the program alongside the physicians and loved it. We were making profound differences in these women’s lives for recurrent breast cancer and documenting the results in our research. Women lost weight, built strength and increased their confidence. We knew these improvements would play a major role in their future health (aside from taking an aromatase inhibitor or other preventive medicine). We built long-term relationships and eventually we expanded the program to prostate cancer survivors, as well.
Q: That seems very fulfilling. Yet, you wanted more. What did that mean?
A: After spending six years in clinical care, I was ready for a new challenge. I realized that I knew little about business so I earned an MBA. Then I leveraged that business knowledge with my acute care experience to work in community health with a desire to improve outcomes. I accepted a position with UnitedHealthcare (UHC) as an onsite wellness coordinator for three clients. One of those was the Parkway School District in western St. Louis County. The District brought me on board to work for them internally as a wellness coordinator.
Q: How have you been recognized for your achievements?
A: A few achievements include:
- Published “Providing a Solution for Breast Cancer Survivors: Diet, Exercise and Weight Management” in Oncology Nutrition Connection, July 2008, a peer-reviewed publication of the Oncology DPG of the ADA.
- I’ve drafted lots of member education materials for UHC and Parkway, including “Eating Mediterranean” and “Eating Mindfully” presentations and podcasts.
- I was the winner of the St. Louis Area Business Health Coalitions Culture of Health Award, in November 2019.
- And, I’ve twice been recognized with the UnitedHealthcare Well Deserved Award, given to 10 employers nationally, in 2018 and 2017.
Q: Can you describe your work within the Parkway School District and explain how it serves the cancer community and how AICR’s materials are used?
A: At Parkway School District we are committed to employee well-being and provide a tremendous amount of holistic well-being opportunities to our staff. We incorporate AICR’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations (as they are similar to recommendations for the prevention of other chronic diseases) into nearly every program we offer. I think it is so important for people to know that their lifestyle contributes strongly to cancer risk. It is not just smoking. Each year we offer one program that is specifically related to reducing cancer risk like AICR’s Healthy10 Challenge. We also offer 10–20 other well-being programs throughout the year that support the principles of lifestyle in cancer prevention. Programs such as Whole Food Eating in 2018, Mediterranean for the Busy Person in 2019 (with a 2.0 version coming in February 2022), Marathon in a Month (physical activity) nearly every year and Prevention Banter (material hanging in bathroom stalls to promote prevention behaviors and screening).
Like many organizations, new cancer diagnoses at Parkway are common and make a major impact on our employees and the cost of Parkway’s health insurance plans. Anything that we can do to encourage healthy and preventative behavior or early detection is very important to personal well-being and to organizational cost savings. The same behaviors that are healthy for cancer prevention are also healthy for general disease prevention.
Q: How do you and the Parkway School District benefit from AICR’s resources?
A: We use AICR’s resources for our nutrition-themed programs. I also use AICR’s material specific to prevention to create visuals for employees, for example, about colorectal cancer awareness.
AICR’s resources are easy to understand, contain practical and real-life advice and are most importantly, evidence-based. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there on cancer and AICR is a steady rock for the correct information. I believe the information about lifestyle, as related to cancer prevention and survivorship, is growing in prominence.
Q: Can you give us an example of how AICR’s resources have helped your community?
A: I ask for feedback after our programs based on AICR’s evidence are over. I asked this question in 2019 and 2020 after one of our cancer programs: Did you find any of the information surprising or new? Do you plan to make changes in your lifestyle as a result?
These are some of the replies I received:
“I didn’t know that breastfeeding had such an impact. I will try to reduce the amount of sugar in my diet, it is the only thing that seems to be an issue right now.”
“I plan to make a lot of changes. I found the articles very informative and since cancer is so prevalent in my family I am trying to learn and do all I can to decrease my chances of having to deal with something like that.”
“Some of the Recommendations were new to me. I also took a couple of the quizzes that continued to motivate me to include more grains and plant-based food in my diet. I’ve been working on this already, but still have a lot of room for improvement.”
“I am going to make a goal of being physically active for at least 60 minutes (likely more) each day! Also, since starting this program, I have given up coffee, which means I have given up sugary coffee creamer.”
“One of the things I found very surprising was that you should not take supplements to prevent cancer. I need to add another day of exercise to my schedule and continue to work on losing a little more weight to reduce my BMI.
Q: How do AICR’s resources help the Parkway School District fulfill its mission?
A: We have an optional well-being program available for our 3,600 employees. An employee wellness leader in each of our 36 buildings is responsible for communicating the range of our offerings. Well-being isn’t one size fits all. Even for those who don’t participate, a promotion may provide a mental reminder to schedule a mammogram. There may be a staff lounge conversation about tomatoes or quinoa or a new walk/run program. There may be an additional consideration for breastfeeding. This is the butterfly effect of well-being that cannot be quantified. AICR provides resources that we use in our work to establish a culture of health and well-being.
Our Superintendent of Parkway Schools responded to an award explaining how investing in employee well-being is an investment in childhood education.
“We are proud to receive this honor and recognition, but we are more proud of our employees who are role models for our students every day. Our first priority is to take care of our children and we know that we cannot be successful unless our teachers and staff are also healthy and well. Our employees are our most valuable resource, so we remain committed to investing in their well-being professionally and personally in order to retain the most qualified and caring people to support our students.”
And this is our well-being mission statement that AICR helps us achieve:
The Parkway School District is committed to helping employees adopt a healthy lifestyle and improve their quality of life. Our wellness program seeks to create an environment that increases health awareness, promotes positive lifestyles, decreases the risk of disease and enhances the quality of life for employees. Parkway chooses to provide a wellness program due to concern for the health and well-being of school district employees and the school community as a whole.
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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.