COVID-19: For information related to COVID-19 (formerly referred to as “novel coronavirus"), visit

VCU Massey Cancer Center


Massey-led study unveils reasons for racial disparities among patients participating in breast cancer research

Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D.

Motivation for cancer survivors to provide samples for genetic tests depends on oncologist engagement or religion, rather than race, according a study led by VCU Massey Cancer Center researcher Vanessa Sheppard, Ph.D.

The study, titled “Biospecimen Donation among Black and White Breast Cancer Survivors: Opportunities to Promote Precision Medicine,” published November 16 in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship. It found that women who had earlier-stage, less aggressive breast cancers, those who were less religious and experienced a greater sense of well-being, and those who had better access to health care were more likely to provide saliva specimens for future cancer research.   

“A woman’s race, per se, is not the main driver of participation in genetics research,” said Sheppard, associate director for disparities research, co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program and Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control at Massey as well as professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at VCU School of Medicine. Sheppard researches the biological, clinical and behavioral factors that influence breast cancer outcomes for women of color.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women, according to the American Cancer Society, and black women have the highest rates of breast cancer mortality compared with any other racial or ethnic group. Breast cancer death rates are 42 percent higher for black women compared with white women despite similar incidence rates, according to the ACS. “It is important to be sure that cancer research is inclusive of this population,” Sheppard said.

Advances in precision medicine have potential to reduce or eliminate breast cancer disparities in treatment and survivorship, but compared to white American women, black women are often underrepresented in genetic research. Minorities overall tend to be underrepresented in genetic studies, with most samples coming from non-Latina white women. The underrepresentation of minorities may diminish the potential impact of precision medicine, confining the genetically tailored cancer treatment and prevention measures to a limited scope of genetic, environmental, lifestyle and personal preferences.

“This study helped us understand factors that may promote provision of biological specimens among breast cancer survivors,” Sheppard said. “It highlights the important role that cancer providers have with their patients.”

The study findings indicate that interventions that target providers and patient-provider communication may be beneficial in the quest toward inclusion of breast cancer patients and survivors in genetic research.

“Hopefully researchers can work with cancer providers to assist with ensuring clinical and genetic studies are inclusive of black cancer survivors,” Sheppard said. “In the long term, we hope women of color will benefit from the predicted advances in precision medicine and studies will promote the delivery of novel and innovative therapies to all women to reduce disparities in breast cancer outcomes.”

The work was supported by National Cancer Institute grant R01CA154848 and, in part, by Massey’s NIH-NCI Cancer Center Support Grant P30 CA016059.

Re-purposed from an article by Anne Dreyfuss, University Public Affairs.

Written by: University Public Affairs

Posted on: November 17, 2017