Dr. Melissa Thomas has an unusual goal for the nonprofit organization she created: She hopes that someday its services will no longer be needed. But until breast cancer is cured or health disparities disappear, Dr. Thomas and CARE (Center for Appalachia Research in Cancer Education) will remain dedicated to providing Amish and Mennonite womenin Appalachia with screening, education, and support.
“There’s passion behind the work we do. We know we have information that can save people’s lives,” says Dr. Thomas, a 2007 Walden University PhD in Public Health graduate who launched Project Hoffnung—the German word for “hope”—to offer these women culturally appropriate services.
Though she isn’t Amish or Mennonite, Dr. Thomas has lived in Appalachia her entire life. She was struck by the community’s high breast cancer death rate and lack of awareness about screening. She had seen her grandmother suffer when a cancer diagnosis came too late, and she wanted to help others avoid the same outcome.
Since Dr. Thomas started her organization in 1997, it has screened more than 3,000 women in Ohio and recently expanded services to Indiana. Both its reach and grant funding have doubled since Walden recognized Dr. Thomas as a Scholar of Change in 2010.
“Our efforts now are grounded in my academic experience at Walden,” says Dr. Thomas, who also works full time as the manager of health disparities research for the Ohio Health Research and Innovation Institute.
Educating Amish and Mennonite women about breast care and cancer presents unique challenges. In their communities, English is a second language, and the primary language exists only in oral form. Many also live without modern technology such as electricity and cell phones.
“It requires creativity to deliver education without the use of technology. It’s back to basics; you use flip charts and go to the blackboard,” Dr. Thomas says. “But for all our differences, we all want the same thing. We all want the best for our families. We focus on our common bonds, and we look to community leaders about how to be respectful. I continue to be educated in all the diversity of the community.”
Dr. Thomas and her organization also help healthcare providers better understand the Amish and Mennonite communities to improve care. She says, “We bridge the gap between communities and the healthcare system.”
Fifteen years into her work, Dr. Thomas can point to both successes and heartbreaks. She says, “It’s always a success if you diagnose breast cancer at its earliest stage for women who wouldn’t have been able to afford or get to a hospital for screening. If one life is saved through the efforts we have committed, it’s all worth it. If one life is saved, it touches so many other lives.”
She stresses the message of early diagnosis and intervention to everyone, not just Amish and Mennonite women and not only during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Dr. Thomas reminds women, “The best defense in surviving breast cancer is regular screening.”