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Looking for Answers to Why Black Women Are More Likely to Die From Breast Cancer Than White Women

Doctor speaking to patient during chemotherapy treatment

Black and white women get breast cancer at roughly the same rate, but black women are more likely to die from it. This disparity has existed for many years and has worsened over time. By 2012, death rates were 42% higher in black women than white women.

The key question researchers are still trying to answer is: Why?

“Likely a person’s own biology along with factors such as physical activity and sedentary behavior play a role,” says Cher Dallal, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. “However, there has been little research done in this area, particularly among black breast cancer survivors.”

Dallal thinks she will find some answers by studying the relationships between a woman’s activity level and her biological makeup. She is looking for what are called biobehavioral links – ways your biology and your behavior interact. And she is focusing on how these connections play out in white versus black women who have survived breast cancer. She’s supported by a 5-year American Cancer Society grant.

Dallal is going to recruit a group of 100 black and white breast cancer survivors. For 7 days, these participants will wear an accelerometer—a Fitbit-like device—that takes detailed and accurate measurements of their physical activity and sedentary behavior. The women will also provide blood samples. This is the “bio” part. Dallal will analyze the women’s blood to look for differences in levels of metabolites, or small molecules, involved in key biological processes and which give a snapshot of one’s overall health. This is known as metabolomic information.

Dallal wants to find out if higher levels of physical activity among breast cancer survivors are associated with differences in their metabolomic information. Importantly, she’ll explore potential differences in these associations between black and white breast cancer survivors.

“Once we have this data, we’ll start looking for patterns,” says Dallal. “In addition to the metabolomics data, accelerometers allow us to measure a range of physical activity, including light and moderate activities. We’ll be able to look at time spent in active and sedentary behaviors and how these behaviors may be associated with various metabolites across multiple biological pathways.”

For example, if Dallal and her team find that breast cancer survivors are more likely to engage in walking and that this type of physical activity is associated with more favorable metabolomic information, this finding could help inform strategies for improving breast cancer survival.

Dallal will also look at the participants’ socioeconomic status, as well as where they live, their weight, and what they eat. And she’ll include information about the type of tumor they had, and other specifics about their cancer.

“With this information, our hope is that we will better understand physical activity and sedentary behaviors among breast cancer survivors and whether these behaviors influence biological profiles. From there, we can inform strategies to help breast cancer survivors improve their prognosis and ultimately to reduce the observed racial differences in breast cancer survival,” says Dallal.