“Cancer Communication: A Topic for a Holiday Family Meal” is the forty-fifth episode of The College Handoff. This episode features Dr. Deborah Himes, a professor at the College of Nursing who has been researching “genetic information and how it’s shared and understood among family members.” Also featured is Dr. Himes’ research assistant Sarah Welty, who spent a summer as a full-time fellowship in cancer research funded through the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer research.
Dr. Himes’ motivation behind her research started while practicing as a women’s health nurse practitioner. “I would take care of patients sometimes who had a sister or a mother who’d had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or maybe they’d had genetic testing, but they couldn’t remember. And they couldn’t remember what age it was, specifically what kind of cancer it was, what kind of test they had. And they’d say to me, can I get tested?” she explains. “When I went through my Ph.D. program, I took a lot of coursework to bolster my knowledge on genomics. I took the cancer count genetic counseling course with the genetic counselors. I learned how much information goes into collecting a family health history and all the prep work for preparing someone for a test and post-test counseling. And I realized that these patients that I was caring for, who had very seemingly very little information, had relatives who had been given an enormous amount of information. So I got to thinking there has to be a better way. We have to consider genetic information to be family information. I think that we can do better than we’re doing. And I do hope that the work that we’re doing here will lead to change in the world and change the way that families are cared for who have genetic risks. And not just for cancer, but for any kind of genetic abnormalities.”
Dr. Himes is a huge advocate for patients telling their family members about their potential genetic risks. “If someone who has had cancer and had a genetic workup to figure out the risk for family members is told, “Hey, your family member has some risk, and they need some information shared with them,” family members are a lot more likely to understand their own risk if they’ve been told. I guess that’s common sense, right?” she says. “But the difficult thing is that a lot of family members don’t get told. And some prior research has broken down what is said, and some of the information passed along is incorrect. So one of the things that we’re hoping to do is find a better way to share this vital information within families to make sure that everyone has the very best information possible to make decisions about their health and prevention.”
One of the beautiful things about the College of Nursing is students’ opportunity to work with the professors on various research projects. Sarah has adored working as a research assistant. “It’s a great experience as a student to have that [background in research]. I think it’s really valuable, especially going into the nursing field because we do have some research classes,” Sarah says. However, I think being a research assistant allows you to grow and understand what research is so that you can apply it when you’re a nurse and go and look at articles and say, oh, I know what this is talking about. Now I can apply that to my patients and help them, which is primarily left up to the doctors out there. So it’s a unique position to have, and to be able to grow has been an excellent opportunity for me.”
One of the places nursing students can participate in research on campus is the Simmons Center for Cancer Research. “It is a great source for researchers and students alike to get connected. The research center accepts donations from community members and alumni interested in promoting cancer res. Then they help students and faculty get together and work as teams,” Dr. Himes reveals. “It’s been an enriching experience to work with the SCCR. Many of the Simmons Center fellowships require that you have an existing relationship with a person researching cancer, and most of them require that you write a proposal. There are also off-campus fellowships that are available.”
If you want to listen to Episode 45 of The College Handoff, which features the full interview and more insights into how to talk about family genetics and collaborate with the SCCR, go to https://thecollegehandoff.podbean.com/e/cancer-communication-a-topic-for-a-holiday-family-meal/ or anywhere you listen to podcasts.