Innovative Massey educator recognized with university’s highest honor for staff
VCU Massey Cancer Center community health educator Polly Cole was recently honored with Virginia Commonwealth University’s highest honor for staff and A&P (administrative and professional) faculty: the 2016 VCU President’s Award of Excellence.
Cole was recognized for her outstanding performance, achievement and service excellence as the community health and resources administrator at Massey. In this role, she oversees Massey’s Cancer Research and Resource Centers of Southern Virginia in Danville and Lawrenceville, which engage with local communities to improve health and advance cancer prevention, detection, treatment and survivorship.
“This award isn’t just for me. I’m merely the facilitator,” Cole clarifies humbly. She thanks the staff at Massey for running with new ideas and creating a lasting positive influence in the communities she serves.
“All I have to do is walk into the offices of our leadership and everyone rallies to help,” Cole says. “I’m honored by this award, but the credit should go to the communities in which I work and to the Massey employees who truly want to make a difference.”
Cole also acknowledges that the success of her team is owed in large part to the unwavering support of her supervisor, Robert Houlihan, D.H.A., F.A.C.H.E., C.C.R.P., C.R.A., senior director of research at Massey. “He consistently pushes me to think outside the box,” she says.
Cole first came to Massey in 1992 as a patient with inflammatory breast cancer, a diagnosis that not only changed her personal life, but her professional life as well.
“I checked out Dr. Susan Love’s ‘Breast Book’ from Massey’s Patient Resource Library before I started treatment. She said she never had a patient who lived with that diagnosis,” Cole recalls. “It was a sobering realization that basically told me I was going to die. At the time, I didn’t understand most of what was being said to me and that was almost 20 years ago.”
After an arduous but successful treatment process, Cole and a few other breast cancer patients initiated the Massey volunteer program. Here, they worked developing and expanding Massey’s Patient Resource Library. The library was small at the time but instrumental in charting Cole’s career path.
A lifelong educator, Cole transitioned from working with learning-disabled children in 1997 to helping Massey patients decipher medical terminology and understand their diagnoses. Through the years, her role at Massey has changed from “reactive education” to “preventative cancer education” with a concentration in rural communities.
Cole helped to establish the Cancer Research and Resource Centers of Southern Virginia in Danville in 2012 and in Lawrenceville in 2013. Supported by Massey, in part through a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, the Cancer Resource Centers actively engage with the communities of Southside Virginia to improve the health and well-being of area residents, with a focus on cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and survivorship. They provide reliable information about cancer screenings and diagnoses, treatment options and managing wellness; connect cancer patients with resources providing medical care, financial or transportation assistance and support services; and host community educational seminars, workshops and conferences. They are also committed to fostering an open conversation about cancer research and connecting the community with opportunities to participate in cancer studies.
Working in rural Virginia has been a challenge, but one that's been met with grace. Cole explains, “When you go in an area and it’s one of the three hot spots of colorectal cancer mortality in the nation and it doesn’t even have a physician and has only one grocery store for an entire county, something needs to be done.”
Working to educate these populations about cancer prevention and healthy lifestyle choices has been a dream for Cole. “Everyone wants to learn, because no one wants cancer,” she says.