Overcoming Barriers

Student researcher examines the needs of non-English speaking cancer patients

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Understanding a cancer diagnosis is hard in itself, but adding a language barrier can complicate things even more. And after seeing the challenges faced by her non-English speaking grandmother when obtaining medical assistance following her breast cancer diagnosis, Yeimarie Lopez made it her goal to learn how she might help make it an easier road for others.

In the summer of 2011, Lopez, a senior social work major and psychology minor at Virginia Commonwealth University, began a research project through the VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to examine Latinos and their experiences navigating the health care system in the United States.

Lopez’ grandmother was diagnosed about five years ago and does not speak English. Lopez said that making sure she received comprehensive and quality care was a challenging process.

“In addition to the language barrier, a significant issue that came to light was that members of my own family weren’t getting cancer screenings or weren’t aware of them,” said Lopez.

“That signaled a lack of access to cancer education or literature for individuals to become educated on that,” she said.

Through her involvement in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, Lopez has had the opportunity to discover and research the issues facing the Latino community in the United States as it relates to their experiences in the healthcare system. Her research project is titled, “The Needs of Non-English Speaking Cancer Patients.”

“I chose to apply for the fellowship because I had a great experience in my research methods course in the social work program,” said Lopez.

“I had a lot of support from faculty members to pursue that interest.”

Support from her mentor, Mary Shelden, Ph. D., assistant professor of focused inquiry in VCU University College, has helped her to refine and focus her UROP work and to create a foundation for the work that she would like to continue in her professional life.

“This research is more of a stepping stone to understand what some of the issues and challenges are for Latinos in accessing health care in the United States,” said Lopez.  “Moving forward in my own career, Latinos’ access to healthcare and comprehensive services are some of the focuses I hope to address in my advocacy work for this population.”

Shelden understands Lopez’ interest in healthcare issues faced by Latinos and believes that her work on the subject will help generate a higher interest in this area of need.

“Yeimarie’s work will, I believe, help call attention to a serious gap in services,” said Shelden.

“It can help hospital programs and other treatment facilities to understand the importance of addressing language barriers that can pose a serious impediment to effective cancer treatment,” she said.