“I’ve seen so many refugees struggle when they get here. I want to help them transition into their new life in America in a better way.”
“If I’m not sick, I don’t need to see a doctor.”
“If you go searching for an illness, you’re going to find something, so it’s better not to go see a doctor.”
“We only go to the hospital if we want to die.”
These are some of the most common explanations Jennifer Kue hears from Southeast Asian American women about why they do not seek breast and cervical cancer screenings. A former refugee from Laos, Jennifer has translated information for family members ever since she learned to speak, read, and write in English. Now she uses her own experience as a refugee, combined with her research on breast and cervical cancers, to help Southeast Asian American women navigate their health needs.
Translating Culture into a Calling
Jennifer claims that “never in a million years” did she think she would end up working in academia. Growing up, she didn’t have any role models who had attended college. Yet her parents instilled in her a belief that an education was a powerful thing to have. She went onto college and then earned a master’s degree in anthropology from San Diego State University.
Jennifer received her first taste of the public health field working part-time at a social service agency in Oregon that served refugees and immigrants. While managing the agency’s health programs for Asian immigrant women, she soon learned that Southeast Asian women have some of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the United States.
“Death from cervical cancer is preventable,” Jennifer explains. “We have a vaccination to guard against HPV and screening mechanisms to detect it early, but our women are not getting screened, and they’re not aware of their risk. I felt like if I can help prevent this cancer, how could I not?”
Since then, Jennifer has focused on preventive health among Southeast Asian refugees, with an emphasis on cervical and breast cancers. So far, her journey in public health has taken her to Oregon State University, Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, and The Ohio State University, where she has worked since 2012.
Communicating with Sensitivity to Combat Cancer
Jennifer notes that cultural sensitivities must always be considered in public health work. Southeast Asian American women often do not get Pap smears, for example, because of the intimate nature of the exam.
To better understand some of these cultural considerations, Jennifer undertook an exploratory study through the National Cancer Institute to examine intergenerational communication about cervical cancer among Southeast Asian American women. She is using these findings to tailor messages in a way that helps community health workers bring Southeast Asian women into clinics to get screened for cervical cancer.
“A lot of the women in the study said, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to my family by finding out that I have cancer.’ So a message from a community health worker might be: ‘Your family doesn’t feel that you would be a burden — they want you to be here to live a full life. They want you to be here so you can see your grandchildren.’”
By framing cancer screening in a positive way that reinforces family values, Jennifer hopes her work can promote greater awareness about women’s health issues in particular and preventive care in general.
Connecting with Other Scholars of Color
Jennifer has already learned so much thanks to her one-year grant from New Connections. She notes the support she has received from peers in her 2017 cohort, including an informal women’s writing group that she and four other current grantees formed to discuss their writing and overall careers.
“It’s so great to have this platform to share my experiences with colleagues who are at the same place as I am in my career. We’re all very supportive of each other,” she says.
Jennifer has appreciated not only the support from her fellow grantees, but also mentorship from experts in the health field through New Connections’ research clinics.
“As a woman of color in academia, I feel that you need to have mentors,” she explains. “Especially in institutions that aren’t always reflective of who you are or where you come from, it’s so important to find someone who understands your experiences.”
Title: Assistant Professor; Director, Office of Global Innovations, The Ohio State University
New Connections Year: 2017
New Connections Status: Current Grantee
- Browning, K., Kue, J., Lyons, F., & Overcash, J. (2017). Feasibility of mind body movement programs for cancer survivors. Oncology Nursing Forum, 44(4), 446–456. doi:10.1188/17.ONF.446-456
- Kue, J., Hanegan, H., & Tan, A. (2017). Cervical cancer screening perceptions, barriers to screening, and behavior among Bhutanese-Nepali refugee women in the U.S. Journal of Community Health. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1007/s10900-017-0355-2
- Kue, J., Szalacha, L. A., Happ, M. B., Crisp, A. L., & Menon, U. (2017). Culturally relevant human subjects protection training: A case study in community-engaged research in the United States. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 28239756
- Kue, J., Pyakurel, S., & Yotebieng, K. (2016). Building community-engaged research partnerships with Bhutanese-Nepali refugees: Lessons learned from a community health needs assessment project. Practicing Anthropology, 38(4), 37–40. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.17730/0888-4518.104.22.168