Equalizing breast cancer detection is key to improving outcomes for Black women

World Cancer Day sheds light on health disparities and new study could help


Today is World Cancer Day 2021, a day focused on collective action to fight the deadly disease. Addressing health disparities is key and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is asking Black women and other women of color to help improve their odds of surviving breast cancer by participating in an important study.

Black women have a slightly lower risk of getting breast cancer but are 40% more likely to die of the disease than white women in the United States. They are often diagnosed with more aggressive breast tumors at younger ages and screening guidelines based on conventional understanding of breast cancer in white women may fail to achieve the best outcomes in diverse populations.

“On World Cancer Day it’s important to not only acknowledge health disparities but to do something about it,” said Samrrah Raouf, who’s coordinating the WISDOM Study (Women Informed to Screen Depending on Measures of Risk), one of several research studies UC Davis Health is conducting aimed at early detection of cancer.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers are broadening the WISDOM Study this year to recruit women across diverse backgrounds and ethnicities to better identify those at highest risk in diverse communities.

Velvia Gullatt
Velvia Gullatt, WISDOM participant

“When I think about people who die from breast cancer as opposed to those who survive it, I think of Black women,” said Velvia Gullatt, a WISDOM Study participant who understands the importance of diversity in research. “The more information researchers have about our lives, the more they can help us. If we don’t participate, opportunities for change are diminished and we will continue to be left out of life-saving treatments at early stages.”

The goal, said UC Davis study investigator Alexander Borowsky, is to recruit at least 1,500 women from diverse ethnicities to participate in the WISDOM Study.

The study is spearheaded by UC physicians and scientists as part of the Athena Breast Health Network. UC Davis is one of five UC medical centers to collaborate in the national study intent on answering the question: What is the best mammography screening schedule for women?

“The WISDOM Study tests the concept that the best strategy for breast cancer screening and prevention may not be one-size-fits-all, especially when it comes to women of color,” said Borowsky. “The study will help us personalize effective screening to improve cancer detection and treatment, which is particularly important for women who have been historically underrepresented or subject to health disparities.”

Open to women nationwide between 40 and 74 who have not had breast cancer, the study evaluates two approaches to breast cancer detection: standard annual mammography versus a personalized approach that takes multiple risk factors into consideration, including genetic markers and breast density, to make a recommendation about when to start or stop and how often to screen for breast cancer, and what type of imaging to use. 

Most women start screening for breast cancer at age 40. This has been the standard for the past thirty years but within the medical community, there is disagreement about whether this is the best approach.

“There is conflicting information about the best time to start mammograms and how often to have the mammograms,” said Borowsky. “We believe it is important for women to understand their individual risk and to make informed decisions about screening and prevention.”

Virtual participation in study

Study participation is completely online and requires only about an hour of time, once a year for about five years. There are no lab or clinic visits. However, a study coordinator is always available to answer questions or to help participants navigate the enrollment process. 

“The more information researchers have about our lives, the more they can help us.”

— Velvia Gullatt, WISDOM participant

Participants in the study group receiving the personalized screenings will be asked to submit saliva samples by mail for analysis of a variety of genetic factors that affect breast cancer risk, such as the BRCA1 and 2 genes, as well as other genes known or suspected to affect breast cancer risk. Although such mutations are relatively rare—only about 1% of WISDOM participants will be found to have such a mutation—the impact of having such a mutation can increase cancer risk substantially. 

Benefits of participating in the WISDOM Study

All participants in the study will have their breast cancer risk assessed and those with high risk will be promptly told. Participants who provide a sample for genetic analysis will receive a copy of their gene report. Women in this group will also receive a personalized screening plan based on their unique risk factors for breast cancer. Women shown to have a comparatively high risk will receive free access to a breast health specialist who will provide guidance and answer questions. Genetic results may also provide useful information to blood relatives. 

Enrolling is easy

To find out more about WISDOM or to register, go to thewisdomstudy.org. You can also contact study coordinator Samrrah Raouf at saraouf@ucdavis.edu or 916 734 5772.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis who work collaboratively to advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Patients have access to leading-edge care, including immunotherapy and other targeted treatments. Its Community Outreach and Education program addresses disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations, and the Center provides comprehensive education and workforce development programs for the next generation of clinicians and scientists. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis partners with hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California communities to offer patients expert care close to home.  For more information, visit cancer.ucdavis.edu.