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A new cancer study aims to learn how the disease develops in Black women

The American Cancer Society wants to reduce cancer disparities in Black women. The society is enrolling 100,000 Black women across 20 states, including Missouri to participate in VOICES of Black women, a 30-year study to help understand and improve the health of Black women nationwide.
Rick Nahmias
/
American Cancer Society
The American Cancer Society wants to reduce cancer disparities in Black women. The society is enrolling 100,000 Black women across 20 states, including Missouri, to participate in VOICES of Black women, a 30-year study to help understand and improve the health of Black women nationwide.

Black women have the highest death rates and shortest survival rates for most cancers of any racial group, according to the American Cancer Society.

The group wants to better understand the disparities that drive cancer rates for Black women through VOICES of Black Women. Researchers are enrolling 100,000 Black women from 20 states, including Missouri, who do not have cancer to help prevent, find and treat the disease.

The goal is to build a large enough study to help change the health of future generations, said Dr. Alpa Patel, the American Cancer Society’s senior vice president of population science and the co-principal investigator of VOICES of Black Women.

“This study particularly allows us by focusing on Black women, to go broader and deeper into the unique experiences that Black women may face as it relates to the way they live, where they live, what they're exposed to, and help us really understand now in a specific way, rather than a general way, what those drivers of cancer are in this population,” she said.

Women between 25 and 55 would complete an online health survey every six months, sharing information about how participants live, work and enjoy their free time. Participants in the observational study would be followed for 30 years. Women do not have to take medication or visit clinics or hospitals.

The study should not take 30 years to reveal answers about what is driving cancer in Black women, but over time, the questions will help researchers learn how to improve the health of Black women, said Patel, who has been studying population science for over 25 years.

The American Cancer Society has engaged with over 2.5 million participants since the 1950s. Its population studies did not specifically follow one racial group or sex, they included all groups. Though many Black men and women have enrolled in studies over the decades, Patel said VOICES gives the group data about barriers that are deeply rooted in longstanding inequities at all levels of society.

“Think about structural or system-level inequities, all the way down to individual inequities,” she said. “It's really going to take an intentional effort like this, for us to be able to understand how to address that so that we can achieve health equity for Black women.”

Some determining factors that are linked to cancer include the neighborhoods Black women live in, the amount of environmental pollution intake or economic disparities. Statistically, Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among all women in Missouri.

Florissant resident Trisha Newson Anderson learned about her mother’s Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis from her mother’s health care worker while she was lying in a hospital bed.

She lived a few years after being diagnosed, but Newson Anderson said knowing of her mother’s disease encouraged her to push more Black people, especially Black women, to get yearly mammograms and participate in studies like VOICES.

“A lot of people are afraid of medicines and things like that, but it's basically just following you to find out the history and background of [Black] women,” she said. “It's very important because we're dying at an earlier age, and there's no need, as long as we have the knowledge and the care to help you live longer.”

At least six of Newson Anderson’s maternal relatives have died from cancer. She believes it is partially due to family members not speaking up about their ailments or not talking about certain diseases enough within the family.

“Cancer, I hate it. I hate it with a passion. It took the person that gave me life,” she said. “If people get involved with the research, we can find a cure … the more we get involved, the more we can lessen this deadly disease.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.