Trinbagonian researcher wins a prestigious award for helping reduce prostate cancer deaths in Trinidad and Tobago

News > The Caribbean

By STEM Caribbean | Posted on May 14, 2019

For decades, cancer has robbed many of the moments spent with their loved ones and friends. There is a worldwide race against time to come up with better treatments, a cure, and improved diagnostic methods for this dreadful disease. Trinidad and Tobago’s very own, Dr. Michelle King-Okoye (pictured above holding the award), is one of the researchers at the forefront of this race in the Caribbean with her research on African Caribbean men with prostate cancer in Trinidad and Tobago. Michelle expressed that the lack of research and her firsthand experience with prostate cancer are two of the reasons she decided to examine the experiences of African Caribbean men with prostate cancer, and their partners in Trinidad and Tobago. The high rate of deaths occurring there from this type of cancer has also motivated Michelle to make the much-needed contribution to reducing the death rate. For her research, she was awarded The Rosemary Pope Award at the University of Surrey in the UK, where she received a master’s degree in cancer care and education, and a PhD in health sciences.  This award is presented to an individual every year whose PhD thesis contributes significantly to the study of healthcare education, practice, and policy. Michelle’s thesis received the highest score at the University of Surrey. 

Before migrating to the UK, Michelle gave lectures at the University of the West Indies (UWI) on topics in healthcare including cancer-related studies, and the SimMan, a patient simulator for which she is credited as being the first to use in Trinidad and Tobago. She also obtained a bachelor’s degree in nursing (oncology) through a joint program between UWI and McMaster University in Canada then worked as a registered nurse specializing in critical care, cardiac care, emergency care, and cancer care. 

Dr. Michelle King-Okoye, her husband, Dr. Steve Okoye, and her son

Research can be perceived as work which a student does for some particular assignment. But Michelle believes that anyone who has a desire to contribute to the improvement and development of healthcare can be involved in research through activities such as clinical research or awareness campaigns. She plans to share her findings with communities in Trinidad and Tobago and the UK and meet with leaders to examine potential solutions to issues of prostate cancer care. In the future, she hopes to conduct more research on her results which could lead to even further improvement of healthcare in her country.

Michelle has spent many hours teaching, researching, and working towards creating a change. But she’s also a devout Christian, a wife, and mother who continually aims to maintain a balanced life. Her research is timely in this fast-paced world where access to quality healthcare is critical. Read our full conversation with her below to know more about her journey. 

Besides the lack of research in this area, were there other reasons for your interest in researching prostate cancer experiences of African Caribbean men and their partners in Trinidad and Tobago?

 Apart from the dearth of studies among Afro-Caribbean men with prostate cancer, there were other reasons why I decided to conduct research in this area. Firstly, whilst working in the clinical setting within TT and the UK, I have experienced first hand how this dreaded disease affects people. Unlike other types of common cancers identified withinthe Caribbean, the number of deaths arising from prostate cancer among men remains the highest in TT and Jamaica. There is also evidence of late help-seeking and subsequently late diagnosis amongst Black African men amidst the controversies that exist with regards to benefits versus harms of screening.  An exploration of beliefs surrounding health and illness was seen as significant in a country, which is multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. I also appreciated the roles of partners as critical to understanding the journey for couples, which would unearth how families cope and are supported during the disease trajectory. I was privileged to win the Rosemary Pope award when my thesis received the highest scoring in Health Sciences at the University of Surrey. This is a very prestigious award that recognizes the thesis that has made a significant and outstanding contribution to healthcare education, practice, and policy-making. Winning this award not only demonstrates why the TT Government has recognized the significance of my work as a developmental need for this nation, but it also emphasizes the transferability of my research findings and its relevance to other populations within the Caribbean, the UK and internationally.

Healthcare is often overlooked by many, especially when resources are lacking. What ways do you think young people from the Caribbean can get more involved with researching healthcare education and practices?

I should highlight that research in various aspects of health is needed throughout the Caribbean, which is critical for the development and improvement of healthcare.  Many people within the Caribbean overlook healthcare mainly because they perceive that they cannot be involved, especially when resources are lacking. I would say it is important to have a desire towards improving the well being of people. Whether it is through clinical research or participation in community activities, such as promoting awareness of cancer and engaging in supervised voluntary work at charities. With the right motivation and guidance, these can be achieved amidst the lack of resources. Whilst working as a lecturer I was the youngest amongst the teaching and academic staff at that time. I gave lectures and supported students who were much older than myself. From my experience, I have learned that it is important that senior leaders guide the younger generation. Though faced with challenges while at UWI, I was pleased when the senior lecturers recognized my potential and afforded me the opportunity to execute in the field in which I was experienced and qualified. For example, one of the pioneering activities I was involved in at that time was when I utilized Sim Man for Health assessment and Education. I was privileged to be the first person to operate and utilize Sim Man in TT, paving the way for others to follow. Hence, it is important to encourage young people to be involved in healthcare education and practice. Identifying experienced mentors can help the younger generation to get involved in the fight against cancer, for instance. It is important to align yourself with someone who is an expert in your field of study, who supports your vision and can guide your professional growth and development. I would like to acknowledge my mentor and friend, Dr. Anne Arber, Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey for her unwavering support throughout the years. Her wealth of knowledge and experience has contributed tremendously to who I am today, as well as being the recipient of the Rosemary Pope award.

Now that your research is completed, are there any particular ways in which you will utilize your findings?

There are four main ways I am currently working on towards utilizing my findings. Firstly, I have and will continue to disseminate my research findings at academic conferences nationally and internationally. Secondly, I have identified and plan to share my findings with lay audiences via talks with men locally within TT and at various hubs within Black communities within the UK, targeting cancer charities. Thirdly, I will be meeting with policymakers and stakeholders to explore ways in which prostate cancer care pathways can be improved. And finally, I will continue to publish in high-impact journals to reach a diverse research audience.

Any plans for further research?

I look forward to conducting further research as my findings are novel and has potential to effect change in healthcare delivery and policy making. Key areas surrounding facilitators and barriers to prostate cancer care in TT have been identified in my research findings. These areas call for additional explorative research that can be stepping stones towards improving care pathways within healthcare in TT. My research findings also have transferability to similar populations such as the Caribbean and the UK, which will be part of my postdoctoral foci. My training and professional experience has prepared me to also promote change within healthcare education and practice on a broader level, apart from cancer care. 

Who inspired you towards achieving success for your PhD degree?

I wish to acknowledge God for without him I can do nothing. Special thanks go to my husband, Dr Steve Okoye and my son, Stevie whom I consider to be my personal PhD. Stevie started the PhD journey in my womb and was my study partner. His presence gave me unspeakable joy amidst the toils whilst journeying through success. I wish to express gratitude to my supervisors: Dr Anne Arber and Professor Sara Fathfull for their support. I would like to thank my parents for believing that I can make a positive difference in the lives of people. Those who shared their experiences for the research project, especially those who could not see the finished work, also inspired me.  May their souls rest in peace and may their families receive strength knowing that they have made a difference! And last but not least I appreciate the support of the TT Government towards my vision and professional development.

What do you in your spare time?

I particularly love to spend time meditating on God’s word. This is important to start off and close each day as it helps me to organise my time and thoughts. I  am a wife and mother who also spend a lot of time with my family. My husband, Steve and I always have date nights, which I look forward to. I am also involved in charitable activities whereby I can give back to society.  All these activities helps me to maintain balance in my life.

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