Every day, Sarah Merritt helps her neighbors in the Finger Lakes region of New York live healthier. As a program manager at the University of Rochester’s Center for Community Health & Prevention, she develops lifestyle programs that support cancer prevention, and oversees outreach efforts that promote taking a proactive approach to healthcare. Energetic, motivated, and a self-proclaimed go-getter, it’s clear that Sarah is passionate about her work.
That’s probably because for Sarah, it’s more than work. It’s a mission.
“My family has battled with obesity my entire life,” she explains. “I’ve seen firsthand how the disease impacts a life – both physically and mentally. And I’ve known since a young age I wanted to get into health and wellness, understand this challenge and help people get on the road to better health – before the “side effects” of chronic health issues consume someone’s life.”
After achieving a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology, Sarah opted to funnel her passion for health into forward thinking health programs. Rather than treat a person after they had become sick, Sarah wanted to work in preventive care and see if she could help people reduce their risk of developing health issues altogether.
As she works towards a master’s in applied nutrition, Sarah also helps manage Promote Health. Prevent Cancer. (PHPC). A civic-minded outreach program, PHPC uses the research outlined in AICR’s Third Expert Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer to help residents in the Finger Lakes region understand the relationship between diet, physical activity and cancer – and gives them the tools they need to take a proactive approach to cancer prevention.
We recently connected with Sarah to discuss her work, and to learn about how she’s using our evidence-based resources to help her community.
Q: Can you tell us about the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Community Health and Prevention, and how the organization serves the cancer community?
A: The University of Rochester Medical Center does a lot to serve the cancer community. The Center for Community Health & Prevention manages and facilitates the Cancer Services Program of the Finger Lakes Region. This New York state-funded program helps eligible, uninsured and underinsured men and women get routine breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings at no cost. The Center also houses the program I work on, known as Promote Health. Prevent Cancer. (PHPC).
PHPC was developed between the Center for Community Health & Prevention and Wilmot Cancer Institute. PHPC is one of the outreach mechanisms that ensures community engagement with cancer throughout the Wilmot region. With AICR as its foundation, the initiative is another way Wilmot Cancer Institute encourages participation in research as well.
While Wilmot Cancer Institute serves as the region’s leading cancer center through treatments, survivorship and ongoing research, the Center helps disseminate that information into the community. The PHPC initiative offers cancer prevention/risk reduction education to community members through programming geared towards improving diet, exercise and other lifestyle behaviors.
Q: How did you discover AICR and our resources/research?
A: Although I use AICR’s resources and research in my daily work, it was Dr. Julie Kueppers, PhD, FNP that discovered the organization.
Prior to formalizing the PHPC curriculum, we were providing generalized health promotion and disease prevention education to various communities. However, based on feedback we were receiving from participants, it was clear that there needed to be more structure to the program and a stronger focus on cancer prevention. So, we began reviewing the literature on evidence-based cancer prevention programs, and Dr. Julie Kueppers came across AICR’s Third Expert Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer. We were immediately impressed by the comprehensive and systematic analysis of research pertaining to cancer prevention.
We were particularly drawn to the Blueprint to Beat Cancer, as it provided us with a structure for our program. It helped us organize the vast amount of information that we had in our existing health education programs into class sessions focused on one or two specific cancer prevention recommendations.
Q: How does the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Community Health and Prevention utilize AICR’s resources?
A: We looked at each of the steps in the Blueprint to Beat Cancer and incorporated them into weekly topics in our evidence-based 8-week program with PHPC. The topics are:
- Healthy Body Weight & Physical Activity
- Eating Patterns & Portion Sizes
- Nutrition Label & Healthful Smart Shopping
- Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables and Beans
- Added Sugars & Sweetened Beverages
- Protein, Red & Processed Meat
- Processed Food, Fast Food & Fat
- Screening Recommendations & Healthy Day Building
The PHPC curriculum also draws on the knowledge and expertise of our Center’s MD, NP and RDs and incorporates concepts of Self-Determination Theory to help with participant’s motivation.
In addition to the 8-week class, we offer health talks. These talks are on any topic covered within the class, using the same guidelines provided by AICR. With these health talks, we use visual aids throughout the presentation and the infographics on the AICR website are a great resource.
Q: Is there any one story in particular that you can share about AICR’s work helping a member of your community? A success story involving a cancer patient or survivor utilizing AICR’s resources?
A: One of the biggest takeaways that participants get from the PHPC program is that they start to care about what’s in their food. They read labels, want to increase their fiber intake and lower their added sugar intake. I had one participant in particular share with me that after learning about the risks associated with consuming too much added sugar, he cut back on his daily sugar intake and lowered his A1C level. That happened in less than eight weeks!
Q: Have you seen AICR’s resources impact the community outside your organization? If so, how?
A: AICR has positively impacted the communities we serve. The success of the PHPC initiative was heightened by the evidence shared by AICR. Prior to finding the Blueprint to Beat Cancer and all of the information on cancer prevention, our program was very general. We gave general nutrition and exercise information, and information on cancer types, but the only real cancer prevention information we had was on screenings. AICR’s cancer prevention evidence surrounding diet and exercise allowed our class to really become a healthy living class geared toward preventing and lowering risk of getting certain cancers. We now have a cohesive program that dives into how certain nutrients, excess body fat, lack of physical activity and exposure risk all play a role in cancer risk. It’s unfortunate that cancer is so common, but the reality is that every participant that comes through our class has a cancer story – be it about themselves, family or friends. Learning how to lower the risk through simple lifestyle changes and why they matter benefits everyone.
Q: Have you seen the public awareness around nutrition/lifestyle and cancer risk evolving? If so, how?
A: Over the last couple years of working on the PHPC initiative, I’ve noticed an increase in a desire to learn about how foods increase or decrease the risk of certain cancers. Everyone knows you should eat fruits and veggies, but instead of just thinking “it’s good for you,” there is more interest in the reasons why. Being able to relate food choices to lowering one’s risk of certain cancers and other chronic diseases can help ignite lasting dietary changes.
Q: How do AICR’s resources help your organization fulfill its mission?
A: The Center for Community Health & Prevention’s mission is to join forces with the community to promote health equity; improve health through research, education, services and policy; and establish local and national models for prevention and community engagement. AICR offers information that can easily be understood by the lay person and it helps us carry out our commitment to advocating for healthier communities for all. It’s nice to have a trusted source to help us bridge the gap between clinical and community.
For more information on the Center for Community Health & Prevention and their Promote Health. Prevent Cancer. (PHPC) initiative, visit their website here.
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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.