News Science

Leading Lady: Julie Hunley, Ph.D.

Study promotes wellness among underserved women with breast cancer

By Mount Mary University

Posted on June 22, 2016

Julie Hunley, assistant professor of occupational therapy, pursued her chosen field as second career because she sought to have a more direct and positive impact on people’s lives. And her recent research has deeply connected her to that fundamental purpose.

Hunley pursued occupational therapy after a successful career as a manager at First Wisconsin Corporation (now U.S. Bancorp).

“The older I got, the more appreciation I had for the scarcity of time,” she said. “If was going to be working on something at work, I really wanted it to be something that fed me as a person as well.”

This realization began a journey that led her to the study of occupational therapy and ultimately a faculty position at Mount Mary University, where she has found herself leading efforts to apply the positive attributes of yoga to women recovering from breast cancer. The use of yoga was a “completely new level of learning” for Hunley, one that she was eager to fully pursue.

“Breast cancer can be devastating to mind, body, and spirit. I wanted to be able to decrease health risk and increase self-efficacy,” she said. “Yoga seemed to be a reasonable vehicle to be able to do that.”

Hunley noted that breast cancer mortality is 39 percent higher for African Americans, and health disparities are compounded by poverty in Milwaukee, where 38 percent of African Americans live below the federal poverty level.  Physical activity was identified by the American Cancer Society as a way to reduce disease risk for African American breast cancer survivors, yet access to neighborhood health and wellness services is limited.

“It’s the relationship building with the women themselves, and seeing their capacity for everyday life increase. There was one grandmother who could now squat down to the floor. When she started, she couldn’t touch her toes. Just seeing that transformation in the women gave life to the research. It was not just numbers; these were real women.”

Julie Hunley, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy, Mount Mary University

To further explore a link between yoga and survivorship, Hunley located an existing wellness group called Sisters 4 Cure and worked with them to recruit about 20 African American women, who came to Mount Mary for six weeks last summer for the yoga wellness study.

As the six weeks came to an end, there was clear evidence that yoga was serving as a highly effective activity for women who have had breast cancer.  The women reported less pain and greater ability to enjoy the important activities of life.

Hunley was especially moved by the individual stories of women who saw their condition improve.

“It’s the relationship building with the women themselves, and seeing their capacity for everyday life increase,” she said. “There was one grandmother who could now squat down to the floor. When she started, she couldn’t touch her toes. Just seeing that transformation in the women gave life to the research. It was not just numbers; these were real women.”

Hunley’s work is generating national attention. She presented her research at the American Occupational Therapy Association Conference in Chicago and at the Medical College of Wisconsin last April. The attention is gratifying, as Hunley is especially proud that the work targets an underserved population. It has also reconnected her with the motivation for initially pursuing an occupational therapy career.

“It was really transformative – for the women in the study, for me, and the students and other faculty involved,” she said. “The layer of race is easy to forget, but it’s something that I had to directly address, and (this research) has had a positive change.”

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