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Massey researcher incorporates patient-centered behavioral interventions into the clinic as a means to reduce cancer risk

May 01, 2018


Rashelle B. Hayes, Ph.D., was applying to be a faculty member and health psychologist at VCU Health when her mother passed away from gallbladder cancer in 2017. Witnessing the multidisciplinary scope of her mother’s clinical care while being treated at VCU Massey Cancer Center only served to strengthen Hayes’ personal commitment to a career in cancer prevention research. 

“My mother’s story drives me even more, and it’s why I choose in my clinical practice as a psychologist to work with patients who are at risk for cancer to change their lifestyle behaviors or to help patients who already have cancer cope with their diagnosis,” Hayes said.

As a researcher for VCU Massey Cancer Center, Hayes studies how to help patients change unhealthy behaviors that may increase their cancer risk with a specific focus on tobacco treatment and obesity management.

Hayes joined Massey as a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program in the summer of 2017. She is an associate professor of psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine and practices as a clinical health psychologist at VCU Health, within the Division of Consultation and Liaison Psychiatry.

While working as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, Hayes fostered an interest in how physicians and other health care providers can play an important role in behavioral health management for patients, especially those at-risk for cancer.

Her research has evolved from designing theoretically-based, individualized interventions focused on changing patient behaviors to additionally developing trainings and interventions for medical students and health care providers so they can directly influence patients to change their behaviors, such as tobacco use, diet or exercise habits.

“We know that more than 80 percent of U.S. adults had contact with a health care professional in the past year, and we know that most patients listen to their physician. We need to leverage this information by training health care professionals on the guidelines to promote patient smoking cessation or weight management,” Hayes said. “Unfortunately, this is not routinely taught in medical school, even when research has shown that physician guidance can lead to increased interests and attempts to change cancer prevention behaviors. One part of my research is in helping health care providers understand that even just a two-minute patient-centered conversation can really change a patient’s world.”

Hayes was awarded an R01 as a co-principal investigator from the National Cancer Institute while at UMass Medical School to study how best to train medical students in weight management counseling skills through a group randomized controlled trial.

Hayes’ other area of research focuses on enhancing the patient’s support system and social network using social media, specifically through secret Facebook or Twitter groups. She is a co-investigator on a recent pilot study funded by the VCU Department of Psychiatry, which examines the potential for technology, including social media platforms and digital applications, to engage patients in weight management strategies while they wait in clinic waiting rooms.

“We know that social support is really important to help prevent poor lifestyle behavior, and we already have empirically supported treatments to help patients quit smoking and manage their weight, but unfortunately these treatments are not easily accessible to patients. Why not figure out how to use social media to disseminate the information where the patients go? Ten years ago, no one would have ever thought that a secret Facebook group could have any impact, but colleagues have found that there is association between increased engagement in the group and weight loss outcomes,” Hayes said. “We have much less evidence of this for smoking cessation groups or for other avenues of weight loss, such as preventing weight regain after bariatric surgery. I would love to be able to do this research as well.”

As a consultant on a separate R01 grant from NCI, Hayes uses her interests and background in public health in tobacco regulatory science and electronic cigarettes to examine vape shop placement and if location has an impact on the use of e-cigarettes or other tobacco products and quitting behaviors. The research team, from Emory University, is also interested in how U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation will impact the prevalence of vape shops, if at all.

Overall, the opportunity to contribute to a global effort to better prevent cancer and alert individuals to their own potential in controlling that prevention by changing unhealthy behaviors like smoking and weight management is what excites Hayes about her work.

“I love the fact that health psychologists can play an integrated and significant role in something as scary as cancer. We have the ability to help reduce any risks that poor lifestyle behaviors can contribute to a cancer diagnosis. We also can work with those patients who are undergoing treatment, helping them with mood management and in healthy behavior lifestyle approaches. When cancer is in remission, it is just as important for these patients to remain smoke-free and be aware of their eating and physical activity habits. Helping patients grow and not feel like they’re defeated is exciting to me,” Hayes said.

Although her mother passed away from cancer, Hayes finds solace in the fact that she was able to cope extremely well, living healthily, using prayer and mindfulness and even travelling to the Grand Canyon to see friends just 15 days before she died.

Hayes was born and raised in south Chesterfield and attended Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School before earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Duke University. She returned to central Virginia and received a doctorate in clinical psychology from VCU in 2007, and then completed a post-doctoral fellowship in behavioral medicine and tobacco control at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University/The Miriam Hospital.

Her first faculty position was as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts from 2009-2016; she continues to serve there as adjunct faculty.  She moved back to Virginia again in 2016 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Richmond’s Department of Psychology, before ultimately ending up back at VCU.

She has been published in more than 40 peer-reviewed publications, including Contemporary Clinical Trials, the Journal of General Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine, and has served as a peer reviewer for at least 15 academic journals. Hayes is a member of several national associations, including the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, The Obesity Society and the American Public Health Association (among others). She has received several academic honors, including the 2012 Dean Faculty Award Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Along with her husband and two young sons, Hayes lives in Short Pump, spending free time traveling as much as possible to the mountains, beach or national capital. She also tries to run in races with her husband and kids when she can; she is proud to have completed a marathon.

Hayes is a fan of Duke basketball, after having been an emergency medical technician at the university when they won the national championship in 2001, but added that she “roots for VCU, of course!” Hayes also enjoys listening to great jazz and blues, playing the piano, learning new food or crockpot recipes and taking the time to relearn Richmond and Virginia.

Written by: Blake Belden

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