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I am Advocacy: Heather Brandt

Posted by Clarie Randall on June 01, 2015 at 12:00 PM

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If you don’t use your voice, who will?

That’s the question that Heather Brandt, Associate Professor of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior and Women and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, Chair of the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families, cancer researcher, and dedicated advocate working alongside and with Tell Them!, has for those passionate about advocacy.

Brandt plunged into the waters of grassroots activism with Tell Them! through the multimedia “Voice of Reason” campaign years ago and hasn’t stopped raising her voice and elevating the voices of others in South Carolina since. For Brandt, working with Tell Them! was a “natural opportunity," she had already gained familiarity as an advocate for cancer-related public health policies and saw the next step as extending her scope into the murky waters of women’s healthcare in South Carolina politics, a bold and brave step for many that have seen or been affected by the way South Carolina’s legislature operates.

And while many interested in pursuing similar avenues often worry about the negative stigmas surrounding lobbying and policy work, Brandt says that she has never been discouraged from getting involved – luckily, the public health field tends to be more progressive in its view of health care than certain S.C. legislators that deem public health bills like the Cervical Cancer Prevention Act unimportant and push them aside.

With this support from colleagues and fellow advocates, Brandt has been able to exercise her knowledge and leadership abilities to encourage public health change on a governmental level. Through her work with the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families and research on both cervical cancer and Human papillomavirus (HPV), Brandt pushes for change not only in policy, but in perspective: the vaccinations available to us now for HPV are a form of cancer prevention.

Cancer prevention. Cancer – the network of disease that sends shivers running down spines – six letters that encapsulate the fear of not knowing, of undetermined timelines, of the presence of uncertainty in a world we so often forget is still vastly mysterious. A conglomerate of diseases responsible for stealing lives too quickly, too young, and tearing apart families, and we are another step closer to cutting off one of its many heads: remind me again how this is a bad thing?

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Fifty years ago the Papanicolaou test (more commonly known as the Pap smear) was introduced to the public and since then there has been a 75% reduction in deaths from cervical cancer. Like the Pap test, the HPV vaccine is a tool in the arsenal of preventive methods we should be grateful to have as beneficiaries of modern medical technology. And as Brandt is quick to note, this is cancer prevention of the future. She says, “why wouldn’t you give your eleven or twelve-year-old a vaccine to prevent cancer?”

Since 2007 legislation similar to the current Cervical Cancer Prevention Act has passed through the clogged inner workings of the South Carolina State Legislature. And for just as long advocates like Heather Brandt are left aggravated, carrying mountains of research and scientific evidence to support this bill with no one in Congress willing to lighten the load and take on this ‘burden of proof’.

And the most frustrating part? We shouldn’t even need this bill.

Every other state outside of South Carolina includes the HPV vaccine as part of its state vaccine program.

Every. Other. State.

This means that 2,500 to 3,000 children that would otherwise go unvaccinated would have the opportunity to take preventive measures towards the health of the future.

While girls are not the only population vulnerable, Brandt has a suspicion that a gender-based misconception may be why this legislation has not yet passed in South Carolina. HPV affects all people, but Brandt believes that since “women are the bearers of the cervix” this bill has repeatedly gone overlooked as a ‘women-only’ issue. The fact of the matter is that frankly, women’s health issues are still health issues. They need to be addressed just like any other health issue and treated with such respect. Furthermore, this bill has the potential to positively impact more than just the lives of women. The Cervical Cancer Prevention Act is not about sex: the only thing that passing the CCPA will do is send the message that South Carolinians care about protecting our children.

We owe it to our future generations as much as we owe it to the generations of women before who dedicated their lives to leaving the world a better place for us. And as a first generation college student with many accomplishments behind her and many ahead to look forward to, Brandt admits that she “probably would not have been able to go to college without these types of advancements” made by the women who came before us to blaze the trail. Brandt credits the spirit of dedication that fuels her busy life advocating for future generations (consisting of research, educating others, writing letters and emails and making phone calls to government officials, providing testimonial at the state house, the list goes on), to her parents and their mantra, “to whom much is given, much is expected”. She certainly lives up to this motto, and most importantly, uses her influence to motivate others to do the same.

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From a young softball player given the hand-me-downs of the girls’ softball team while the boys donned fresh new uniforms, Brandt learned early on the subtleties and pervasiveness of inequity and became determined to work for change that focused on fair treatment of all people and the availability of equal opportunities—softball also gave her the skills needed to become a leader. No longer a girl with a worn-in jersey and bat, Brandt still takes her place at the mound every day to swing at whatever comes her way, although the curve balls she’s thrown nowadays often come in the form of minority reports and resistant politicians.

As someone who has been on the team for years now and is a powerful advocate in the Columbia area, Brandt’s advice for burgeoning advocates is simple: take advantages of the opportunities for leadership and advocacy around you in your community (like Tell Them!) and for students, on campus (get involved in student government and organizational leadership) and don’t back down when others tell you to be quiet. After all, she says, “If you don’t use your voice, who will?”

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