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Massey observes Breast Cancer Awareness Month with Facts & Faith Fridays special session

Oct 26, 2022

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On Sept. 30, 2022, about 60 faith leaders and community members joined Facts & Faith Friday for a virtual discussion on breast cancer, the most common and second deadliest cancer among women.

‘Breast Cancer: It’s Not a Black or White Issue,’ was a presentation by Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach engagement (COE) and health disparities research at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

While the incidence of breast cancer among white women remains the highest, 131.6 per 100,000 at risk, the mortality is highest among Black women – 28.2 compared to 20.1 for white women.

According to Sheppard, social determinants impact the mortality rate, along with the biology of the tumors for some African Americans.

“Individuals born during the Jim Crow time period are more likely to have estrogen receptor negative breast cancer,” she explained. “That’s that type of breast cancer that currently doesn’t have well-known therapeutic targets. So just living in these Southern states, there’s something to having a worse prognosis.”

Stacey Everett, Ed.D, who has been a survivor of breast cancer for more than a decade, shared the story of her diagnosis. Everett, whose mother was a breast cancer survivor, learned how to do self-exams at age 16 and began getting mammograms at 27 to be proactive about her health. In January 2010, a physician discounted her concerns about a lump she found.

“You don’t have breast cancer,” Everett remembered the doctor saying. “He said ‘You are overweight, you’re Black and you’re 40.’”

At the time, Everett said she was actually 39-years-old with a healthy body mass index (BMI), and she did not understand why her race was included in a conversation about the need or lack of need for a clinical breast exam.

The experience made Everett angry, and she realized too many women were put in similar situations.

“I’ve seen too many people who have passed on because they heard, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’” she said. “Are we going to get the treatment that we actually need and deserve?”

A year after detecting the lump, Everett received a breast cancer diagnosis and connected with Massey’s community-engaged research to help educate other women. She is currently a Cancer Champion, a program at the center that enables survivors and caregivers to build relationships and partner with researchers.

“It’s up to us to make a difference,” Everett stated. “Ensure that you’re doing everything to take care of not just yourself, your body, your neighbors, your friends. Get those exams, get those mammograms, do self-exams and take good care of yourself.”

Sheppard said Massey currently has outreach underway to increase access to screening in areas with the highest breast cancer incidence and mortality, like Richmond County, Va., where a recent analysis implied structures may have contributed to the high number of cases in an under-populated area.

Sheppard said there is more work to do to address socio economic factors. Improving therapies is already making a positive impact on patients in active treatment and into survivorship. 

“Now we are looking at treatments where we can keep the healthy cells healthy and just focus on the cancer cells,” Sheppard explained. “And that’s a big difference in terms of being able to tolerate therapy and some of the side effects.”

Watch the entire Facts & Faith Fridays special session on breast cancer here.

Since 1985, October has been designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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