Home Taking it to the streets: VCU ‘Massey on the Move’ vans bring cancer education to underserved
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Taking it to the streets: VCU ‘Massey on the Move’ vans bring cancer education to underserved

Rebecca Barnabi
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VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center deployed two mobile health vans in fall 2023.

The vans delivered cancer education and awareness to traditionally underserved communities across central and southern Virginia.

“I have had the pleasure to see the van in action — it is very well equipped to host a visitor comfortably while receiving educational materials and insight from the staff. I am impressed by the encompassing work being accomplished by this community endeavor, and I am glad to be able to share with other community members how beneficial the van can be for them,” said Jeanette Grimes, a Brunswick Health Ambassadors community health worker from the Virginia Department of Health.

Since the launch of “Massey on the Move,” the vans have reached nearly 1,000 Virginians at events across the cancer center’s catchment area. Massey’s Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) team has had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with Virginia residents to encourage healthy lifestyle practices and cancer screening.

“Massey on the Move” offers an entry point for community members to connect with Massey’s COE initiatives and partners to activate healthy lifestyle behaviors and risk-reducing practices. The events have prompted 40 people to sign up for prevention educational sessions, including “We CAN Quit,” Massey’s free tobacco cessation program that connects people with trained tobacco treatment specialists (TTS) and resources to help them stop using tobacco, the “We Can Eat Well” program for nutrition education, and “We Can Take Action” empowerment education conversations to address health literacy gaps, cancer prevention and early detection.

According to Michael Gesme, senior program manager for community outreach and engagement on Massey’s COE team, approximately 24 people from the “Massey on the Move” van events have been referred to the COE’s navigation services to address an individual’s barrier to screening tests, diagnostic follow-up tests, cancer treatment services and state-of-the-art clinical trials.

“We’re providing critical education about cancer prevention and screenings that we believe will help us address the higher cancer mortality rates that Massey has identified in communities the vans are visiting,” Gesme said. “To see connections being made between people and our trained navigators to make sure they can access the resources they need has been incredibly rewarding.”

First Baptist Church of South Richmond and Massey’s Facts & Faith Fridays community used the vans in August to provide information about the benefits of clinical trials and allowed people to participate in a cancer screening trial involving a simple blood test, right from the parking lot outside the church.

In October, the van rolled up to Charles City for a breast cancer screening event co-hosted with the Chickahominy Tribal Center and Sentara Health. The Chickahominy Tribe also partners with Massey investigators Dr. Katherine Tossas and Dr. Maria Thomson on the T.R.U.T.H. project, a community-academic partnership, to investigate perceived and actual cancer risk in Charles City County.

Tiffani Collins, senior program manager for the COE’s care coordination and navigation initiatives, said that while the vans have had a strong presence in greater Richmond and the Tri-Cities area, Tappahannock and Lawrenceville, next year the plan is to deploy the vans further to Danville, Nottoway County and Portsmouth.

Earlier this month, Massey leaders, volunteers and corporate sponsors gathered for a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate the launch of “Massey on the Move.” The group was joined by Richmond artist Sir James Thornhill, who along with Hamilton Glass created the artwork featured on the vans to reflect Massey’s involvement and commitment to the community.

Funding for the vans is provided through a $300,000 grant from The Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation’s Social Justice Grants Initiative, which supports organizations addressing the fundamental causes of systemic inequity, including health disparities. A $150,000 grant from Bank of America funded the educational materials that are distributed from the vans, focusing on cancer prevention and screening information as well as general health and wellness guidance.

Becky Massey, chair of the Massey Advisory Board, welcomed guests and shared a conversation she’d had with Hunter Applewhite, president of the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, that jump-started the initiative.

“Hunter said, ‘Tell us how Massey Cancer Center can impact the crossroads of social justice and health equity,’” Massey said. “We took that question back to Dr. Winn and Dr. Sheppard and the team, and together they came up with the vans as the answer to bring our education and our resources out to our communities — and look where we are today.”

Dr. Vanessa Sheppard is associate director for community outreach & engagement and health disparities. She said Massey’s recent NCI designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center reflects a commitment to engaging the community in every aspect of its work.

“We all know that if you have great advances in science, but it can’t get to the people who need them, then how good is that?” Sheppard said. “So how are we going to do this? We’re going to take it to the streets with ‘Massey on the Move.’ We’re going into communities across our catchment area, prioritizing those that have the highest burden of cancer — we’re going to meet people where they live, where they work, and we’re going to work to build trust, to ultimately save lives.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.