When she got a call a few months back about a prestigious award given by the American Association for Cancer Research, Dr. Beti Thompson thought she might be asked to help select the award recipient.
But Thompson, of the Public Health Sciences Division, was instead told that she’d been chosen for the award.
“I was absolutely floored,” she said.
Thompson recently received the AACR Distinguished Lecture on the Science of Health Disparities Award, funded by Susan G. Komen, which recognizes work that helps further the understanding of disparities in cancer. She was given a $5,000 honorarium and presented a lecture in Atlanta in December at the sixth annual AACR Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved.
Additionally, Thompson is a finalist for Seattle Business magazine’s 2014 Leaders in Health Care Community Outreach Award.
Two decades devoted to improving cancer prevention among the medically underserved
For Thompson, head of the Hutch’s Health Disparities Research Center, the award and nomination recognize two decades devoted to improving cancer prevention efforts among disadvantaged populations.
She started working at the Hutch in 1985 with a specific focus on smoking cessation, but after a time realized that the people who continued smoking despite various anti-smoking initiatives were those with less education and lower economic status – the same people who were underserved by cancer prevention efforts overall.
Underserved communities often face language, cultural or economic barriers to cancer prevention, early detection and treatment, and are consequently more likely to die from cancer.
Thompson’s influence extends from Seattle to eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley
Since 1995, Thompson has focused her research on underserved populations, particularly Latinos. Some of that work has involved agricultural workers in eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, where Thompson’s group runs several projects. One initiative focuses on cancer awareness, education and behavior change, using promotores – lay health workers – to increase the numbers of Latinos getting early screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer.
Another program uses promotores to help people with diabetes manage their disease. Thompson and her colleagues found that promotores were the most significant factor in convincing participants to change their behavior to reduce the impact of diabetes.
Thompson’s group also organizes an annual “Quit and Win” contest that has convinced many smokers to give up the habit, facilitates walking groups and puts on cooking demonstrations that show healthy ways to prepare food.
In western Washington, Thompson and her colleagues run several projects focused on breast cancer and breast cancer screening for Latinas. They are also partnering with New Mexico State University to develop an infrastructure for cancer research at the university. Last September, Thompson received a grant of more than $5.5 million from the National Cancer Institute to support the partnership.
‘I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog’
Thompson, who was elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences in 2012, said the roots of her career focus date back to her childhood.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog, ever since I was a little kid,” Thompson said. “So I decided I wanted to work with underserved populations.
“I was deeply honored to receive the [AACR] award.”
Dr. Beti Thomas: Helping immigrants understand cancer
Reach writer Deborah Bach at email@example.com.