Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Sylvester Researchers Awarded Millions for Breast Cancer Study in Black Women


A team of researchers from the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has been awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of stress management in black women with breast cancer. The scientists want to develop innovative and effective ways to help underserved women as they navigate a difficult time in their lives.

Although the reasons for racial disparity in breast cancer death rates are not fully understood, several factors likely play a role, including the biology of breast cancer, the quality of breast cancer treatment, and socio-cultural factors. Suzanne Lechner, Ph.D., research assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology, is leading the five-year UM study. The study is dubbed Project CARE, and according to Lechner, is designed to help women Cope, Adapt, Renew, and Empower one another after breast cancer treatment. Lechner hopes to uncover some of the social and psychological factors that affect survivorship among black breast cancer survivors.

For several years, Miller School researchers have been examining stress management to better understand how group participation may affect women’s well-being. Doctors are interested specifically in how stress management groups affect women psychologically, plus how these sessions affect the immune system and the neuroendocrine system. Lechner says she and her colleagues designed Project CARE to “serve an unmet need of black women in our community and to further our understanding of the ways in which individuals adapt after having breast cancer.”

Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, and Michael Antoni, Ph.D., associate director of cancer prevention and control at Sylvester, are co-principal investigators on this study. Previously, Lechner worked with Antoni as he led a study focused on cognitive behavioral stress management that was designed specifically for women who had just had surgery for breast cancer. That research found that a group approach improved outcomes in women recently treated for breast cancer by lowering intrusive negative thoughts, anxiety and social disruption. In addition, the interventions decreased common physical symptoms such as fatigue and sleep disruption, and affected the functioning of the immune system and stress hormones.

This new study, which is sponsored by the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship, is taking that previous research to the next level. Few black women were represented in the earlier study and patients were drawn mostly from private practices. Lechner says she and her colleagues wanted to broaden the scope of the study in order to better represent the women of South Florida. Project CARE will focus on underserved black women, providing them with an intervention that is tailored to their unique needs and cultural sensibilities.

Kobetz, who is also director of the Disparities and Community Outreach Core Resource at Sylvester, is especially excited about “the possibility of taking an effective intervention into the community, where it may have significant impact.” She notes that underserved black breast cancer patients often have a poorer outcome due, in part, to fewer community-based programs that address their unique experiences.

This study will zero in on the end of treatment, an often-neglected but stressful time for women. “You feel like all that you were doing up until the end of treatment protected you, but then you’re left to your own devices,” says Rhonda Smith, a breast cancer survivor and community partner on the project. “Groups like Project CARE are an excellent way for women to take control of their own health and well-being.”

Another member of the team, Nicole Ennis Whitehead, Ph.D., manager of the Biopsychosocial Oncology Shared Resource at Sylvester, says the hope is that this project “raises awareness in the local community about the unique issues facing black women with breast cancer.”

Lechner says the entire research group is dedicated to providing a caring experience that has not been available before in the community, and emphasizes that the program will maintain strict rules of confidentiality among participants.

Project CARE is currently enrolling eligible patients for October and March group sessions. For more information, call the Project CARE office at 305-243-8367.

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