man playing guitar with granddaughter

Anti-Cancer Challenge grant funds Vietnamese community cancer outreach

April 16, 2019 | UCI Health
 Suellen Hopfer, assistant professor of public health
In her current project, Suellen Hopfer, assistant professor of public health who specializes in medical and risk communication, is reaching out to Vietnamese Americans, especially older generations who are wary of Western medicine or follow cultural taboos against even mentioning cancer. Steve Zylius/UCI

She’s heard all the excuses. When it comes to colonoscopies, immunizations and other preventive measures, Suellen Hopfer is used to encountering rationalizations and resistance. Her job is to defuse the defenses.

Bombarding folks with facts “isn’t going to motivate them,” says Hopfer, a UCI assistant professor of public health who specializes in medical and risk communication. Instead, she crafts videos and other messages that address real-life objections and fears with a blend of emotion, humor and FAQ-style nuggets of information.

Opening the conversation about cancer

Her latest project aims to increase colon tumor screenings, Pap tests and HPV vaccinations among Vietnamese Americans, especially older generations who are wary of Western medicine or follow cultural taboos against even discussing cancer.

Funded by a $34,000 grant from UCI's Anti-Cancer Challenge event to benefit cancer research, the pilot program will use family chats on social media apps to promote disease prevention, a method that has previously worked to help people quit smoking, Hopfer says.

“Health information may be more accepted when the message comes from a trusted relative,” she explains.

One of 25 research projects

The Vietnamese outreach grant is one of more than 25 research projects supported by the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge, an annual cycling, 5k-run/walk that has raised more than $1 million for life-saving research at the UCI Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. The third annual event will be held Saturday, June 8, at Aldrich Park on the UCI campus.

For the outreach project, graduate student researcher Theresa Duong is recruiting 20 young adult Vietnamese Americans to serve as wellness ambassadors in group discussions with their elders on Facebook, WhatsApp and other chat platforms.

Meanwhile, Hopfer has convened focus groups to devise sample scripts for the recruits to use. “We interview the audience we want to reach so we can develop a message that resonates as authentic and relatable,” she says.

Finding messages that resonate

This won’t be a blind study. Family members will be told in advance that they’re part of an experiment, which Hopfer concedes could skew the results. Nevertheless, she hopes to learn which messages are most effective.

“The way you talk about things makes a big difference in whether people actually vaccinate or get a screening,” she notes.

While studying health communication as a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University, Hopfer created a video — financed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that nearly doubled HPV (human papilloma virus) inoculation rates among viewers.

She now works on similar projects with Real Prevention, a company that offers vaccination and anti-substance-abuse programs for youth. Together, they have produced 18 HPV videos — including one filmed in Westminster’s Little Saigon — that are tailored to various demographic and social groups.

Larger trial could be created

If all goes well with the Vietnamese community cancer and health awareness experiment, Hopfer will apply for federal grants to conduct a larger, formal trial and possibly adapt the scripts for other communities, she says.

Dr. Richard Van Etten, director of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, says he welcomes any effort to boost cancer screening rates, which are especially low among ethnic minorities.

Part of the cancer center’s mission, says Van Etten, “is to identify cancer [inequities] and come up with research programs to alleviate them.”

Orange County Vietnamese families interested in joining Hopfer’s study can visit the UCI Vietnamese Integenerational Communication Study website for more information or email her research assistant at huongd@uci.edu.

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