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Hope from Heartbreak: Melissa Thomas Screens to Save Lives

As part of the “Change Your World” series, in partnership with Walden University, GOOD spoke to Melissa Thomas about her career, her education, and the powerful way it has shaped her life and her community.

Melissa Thomas was just a young girl when she suffered a devastating loss—her beloved grandmother succumbed to cancer, a tragedy that was simultaneously heartbreaking and eye-opening. For Thomas, her grandmother’s passing solidified her life’s goal to address existing cancer health disparities. In 1997, Thomas founded Project Hoffnung (German for “hope”), an Ohio-based project aimed at addressing breast cancer issues facing Amish and Mennonite women. And, although she had great successes in expanding education and offering breast cancer screening services among these two populations, who have traditionally had particularly high death rates in this arena, she felt she could do more, and education was the way to do so. “I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the world,” Thomas says, “and Walden University’s Ph.D. in Public Health program helped provide the tools and support to realize my dream in saving lives from cancer.”

Since graduating from Walden in 2007, Thomas has been able to apply the skills she developed to significantly expand the reach and impact of Project Hoffnung—quadrupling the number of women who completed cancer screenings (more than 4,500) and branching out beyond Ohio to Indiana and Michigan as well. Gathering more than $1 million dollars in grant funding, Thomas and approximately 20 volunteers have been able to provide culturally competent breast health education to these Amish and Mennonite women, communities that are harder to reach because of the inherent aversions to modern technology and modes of transportation. In 2011, Thomas took further steps to reach underserved populations, establishing the Center for Appalachia Research in Cancer Education (or “CARE”) as a nonprofit organization to serve as a home for her cancer initiatives. Believing that all women should be properly informed about breast cancer education and have access to preventative screening measures, Thomas founded CARE to especially reach these more rural and off-the-grid communities. To date, CARE remains the only grant recipient of all four Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliates in Ohio, a feat of which Thomas is immensely proud.

“I have worked with so many deserving communities—Latino, lesbian, Appalachian, Amish, and others,” Thomas says, reflecting on the diverse populations her cancer initiatives have been able to serve, all aided by the education she received at Walden. Her now eight-year-old project, Proyecto Cáncer del Seno en Latinas, has received more than $400,000 in grant funding and served more than 15,000 Spanish-speaking women in central Ohio. The recipients are provided with vital breast cancer information and access to lifesaving screening services. But beyond these breast cancer programs, Thomas’ professional and research efforts have also been positively impacted since her graduation, she says. Promoted to Manager of Health Disparities Research for the largest healthcare provider in Ohio, Thomas has also received other prestigious accolades for her commitment to service and social change.

As Thomas pushes forward with her cause, she’s constantly thankful for how influential her education has been in making every step of progress possible, and she keeps the inspiration of her late grandmother in her mind always. “I try to be an inspiration not only for my passion in helping others, but also for my creativity and resolve in working with communities that need so much and have so little. I truly feel that if just one life could be saved in the fight against cancer through these community-led initiatives, then my grandmother’s death will not have been in vain.”

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