By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Being known as “The Cancer Lady” is a title Claudia Hardy wears proudly, but she is aware of all that comes with the name.
“It’s an honor, but it carries a tremendous … responsibility to measure up,” she said. “I’m always on. I don’t miss an opportunity to educate and to offer some advice for how people can get connected in a system.”
For more than 20 years, Hardy has worked at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to encourage those in urban and rural areas of Alabama to get screened for a broad range of cancers, including lung, prostate, colon, cervical, and breast.
Throughout October—Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign that aims to increase awareness about the disease—Hardy will be focusing on several activities, such as screenings, breast exams, and mammograms.
“We want to make sure women know how to give themselves breast exams, to check for lumps or [any other things that seem abnormal], and just make them aware of what is associated with breast cancer,” she said.
Hardy, 50, is program director for the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement for the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB; a position she has held since 2007. Through some of the work in her office, she said, “I build relationships.”
“This [role] allows me to pave the way for the underserved, those without a voice,” she added. “Even … as high-functioning as my role is, I still take the opportunity [to sit with people in rural communities] because I value people. So, I am just as happy to talk to the lady I meet standing in line at the local Dollar General as I am to sit at a table with a scientist [from UAB] at The Club, [a private venue in Birmingham].
“I know what it is like to not have enough money for insurance, … to stretch out a prescription, or to want to have a mammogram but [not] have a $150 co-pay. I am also thankful that I have the ability to sit with leaders and say these are issues individuals are really facing in this community you’re trying to research and study.”
Hardy is known for her work both at home in Alabama and elsewhere. For example, she traveled to Zambia in 2010.
“We had the chance to have a co-learning experience [through the National Cancer Institute to look at HIV-related cancers],” she said. “An organization used a community-health-workers model to do cervical screening in Zambia, so I, along with four other people on my team, learned how they did it. … We had a chance to see the distance of the terrain they have to travel to visit patients and where individuals in the community lived. We also visited some of their clinics. … They, in turn, came to Alabama four months later and learned from us.”
When the visitors from Zambia arrived in Alabama “they got a chance to see the setup around the rural clinics we work with,” Hardy said.
Working in Africa for that one week reminded her of childhood days in rural Alabama “because there were some places [that reminded me of my hometown of Sardis, Alabama],” she said. “We weren’t in a big city. There were clay and red dirt roads, … and we saw lots of corn fields … and a lot of agricultural plants. For every meal we had [in Africa], there were sliced tomatoes and sliced onions. [When I grew up in the country], we used tomatoes as an accompaniment with our vegetables, too. … I was just awestruck with the history and the connection. … The similarities were so keen to me, so I didn’t have a hard time fitting in.”
Hardy grew up in Sardis, a rural community 17 miles outside of Selma, Alabama; she has three older brothers, one older sister, and two younger sisters. Her father had a child prior to being married to her mother, and Hardy is the fourth child of her parents. Her mother and father instilled good, strong work ethic in all of the children.
Hardy was the valedictorian for both her elementary school and junior high school graduating classes. She went on to attend Selma’s Southside High School and became the first African American senior to be named the Catherine T. Windham Girl of the Year, an education and service scholarship given by Delta Kappa Gamma, a group that promotes excellence in education.
Having grown up in Dallas County and in and around Selma, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, “[I] made history by being the first African American to receive that award, and that was very special to me,” she said.
After graduating from high school in 1988, Hardy attended UAB, where she majored in communication studies with an emphasis in public relations.
“It was a great time of growth for me because I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with a lot of different people from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “I had the chance to grow exponentially and learn a lot. I was exposed to a whole new world at UAB, and I learned to maintain and find my own community within UAB.”
Hardy earned a master’s degree in public administration from the university in 1994 and took a position in gerontology with the UAB continence program, where she worked for four years. In late 1998, she applied for the position of program manager for the Office of Community Outreach at the UAB O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“What interested me about the role and the position was that it allowed me to develop and deliver health messages and [conduct] screening programs on campus and in underserved and minority communities,” she said. “I had done some work with geriatric medicine in the continence program [that involved] recruiting African Americans and other minorities in for research trials, so I learned that I had a full understanding of how minorities approach health.”
At the same time, Hardy’s mother was starting to have some health problems, “so I was able to understand and translate what [scientists doing research] were trying to accomplish and deliver in these programs,” she said.
Community Health Advisors
As program director with the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement—which is staffed by more than 20 people, in addition to community health advisors—Hardy handles, leads, and directs the day-to-day operations, including hiring, recruiting, training, and program development. She also serves as a liaison between scientists and community staff to translate research interventions and health initiatives.
Hardy said “community health advisors are an extension of the office. … They are trained about cancer, which type it is, the risk factors, and how to describe it in lay terms so people understand it. … My work is vast and global in that I wear a lot of hats, so I have to pivot a lot because of all the work that I do.”
“[Community health advisors] are the foot soldiers. They have boots on the ground and are the kind of people that others go to when they want to know something … Because of their love for their community, we train them about health issues and connect them to health care resources so they can, in turn, go and educate … their families and friends, their co workers. The model has proven to be successful, particularly in the most vulnerable communities,” Hardy explained.
The Office of Community Outreach and Engagement also has part-time employees who live in the communities where they work; they are in about 26 counties across the state. These individuals work for UAB in their respective counties, working from their homes and serving as local resources for people in their communities.
Staying in the Game
Hardy considers her work crucial, especially in the African American community.
“Often times, we suffer disproportionately because there is that disconnect of the link between the health care system and the individual in that community,” she said—and that’s why she continues to fight so hard.
“While we’ve made tremendous strides and tremendous increases in certain cancer screenings, we still have a lot of work to do,” Hardy said. “As communities continue to evolve, people’s needs change. … I understand both worlds. … I understand [the importance of] screening, but I also understand the fear.
“I feel like I am a voice for the underdog, the underserved, the misrepresented, those who are not fully understood. That is why I want to stay in the game a little while longer.”