July 7, 2008

University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service agents in southeastern Kentucky are helping University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center researchers educate the public on acid reflux disease, esophageal cancer and a possible link between the two as part of the Marty Driesler Esophageal Cancer Research Project.

Marty Driesler was the former chief of staff for Fifth Congressional District Representative Hal Rogers who lost her battle with cancer in 2003. The project focuses on researching a link between chronic acid reflux disease and esophageal cancer and reducing the numbers of instances of esophageal cancer in the area through public education.

The study is funded through a Congressional appropriation and by The Lexington Foundation. It began three years ago in Pulaski, Laurel and Whitley counties, which have some of the highest rates of esophageal cancer in the state and nation. The study was recently extended to Pike, Martin, Johnson and Floyd counties.

Extension agents in those counties present educational materials to people in the area who have prequalified for the study with the UK Markey Cancer Center. Teaching materials the agents use were developed by UK researchers and cover topics such as when to see a doctor for acid reflux disease, different kinds and levels of medications available and risk factors for esophageal cancer.

"Instead of doctors and researchers from Lexington teaching the class, it's people from either their hometown or area that they know," said Dr. Nicholas Nickl, principal investigator for the study and professor in the UK College of Medicine.

"This project shows how UK is trying to reach the communities of Kentucky by partnering with the extension service," said Chuck Stamper, extension's east regional coordinator.

Eugenia Tackett, Pike County family and consumer sciences extension agent, is teaching the educational component to individuals from Pike and Floyd counties. Brenda Cockerham and Stephanie Crum, family and consumer sciences extension agents from Johnson and Martin counties respectively, are educating individuals in both their counties. All have received positive feedback from those who attended the sessions.

"They found the educational session very informative, and they are excited about the opportunity to help someone else," Tackett said.

"The people who came to the sessions were very interested because they have acid reflux disease and are interested in following up with a doctor," Crum said.

After the study, participants are contacted annually by a representative from the hospital to follow up on their condition and whether the educational component of the study was beneficial for them.

Participants may also choose to have a blood specimen drawn to look for common indicators of cancer as a part of the study, but this is completely voluntary.

UK researchers have already learned from preliminary data that a treatable condition called Barrett's Esophagus seems to be the link between acid reflux and esophageal cancer.

"Barrett's Esophagus seems to be necessary for esophageal cancer, but not all cases of Barrett's Esophagus become cancer," Nickl said. "People who live in the Fifth Congressional District have a higher - almost double- risk of Barrett's Esophagus. This is where the blood tests become important."

If you live in southeastern Kentucky and would like to take part in the study or want more information, contact Sarah Turner, research associate and project coordinator at the UK Medical Center at 1-877-267-0626.