New research from the Indiana University School of Medicine suggests that obesity in women of African descent increases their risk of recurrence of breast cancer or even death — this was not true in women of European descent. Dr. Tarah Ballinger, breast oncologist at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and lead author of the study, says the study found that excess weight increased recurrences and deaths in women of African ancestry. Those who were severely obese were more than twice as likely to have a recurrence of their breast cancer. However, for European Americans, weight was not related to breast cancer recurrences and obesity did not make their prospects worse. An estimated 43,000 women in the U.S. will die from breast cancer this year, and the disease hits Black women especially hard. From 2014 to 2018, the death rate for Black women was 27.3 per 100,000 cases, compared to 19.6 per 100,000 cases for white women. The study does not pinpoint exactly why this disparity exists — or why obesity impacts Black women differently than White women. Ballinger says the racial disparities are certainly not just biological. Much has to do with socioeconomic status and culture and other ways that the health care system makes things more difficult for disadvantaged populations, she says. The study’s findings are helpful to researchers and doctors because they show that a factor that can be changed — such as weight — is one way to reduce the disparity between Black and White women, Ballinger says. But doctors are looking to move beyond just defining the problem. Ballinger hopes scientists can now design trials tailored to Black women, using culturally sensitive motivators and methods to help them lose weight. Obesity is a problem affecting many Black women — with 56% of non-Hispanic Black women classified as obese, compared to 38% of non-Hispanic White women. And while Black women are less likely to get breast cancer, when they do, they are more likely to die from it. The five-year breast cancer survival rates for Black women are significantly lower than for white women. Ballinger says over recent decades, the cure rates and survival rates for early breast cancer continue to improve. But even as they continue to improve, the race disparity gets larger. Ballinger says socioeconomic, cultural, and systemic disparities in the health care system must be addressed for Black women to see greater improvements.
In other news, a new project with support from the IU School of Education will bring vital STEM education to rural students around southern Indiana. Project LIFT, which stands for Literacy/STEM Improvement for Today’s Students, is designed to advance literacy while enhancing STEM education for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Adam Scribner, director of STEM Education Initiatives at the School of Education IU Bloomington, says the project will combine two research-based educational programs, Readable English and Novel Engineering to improve student literacy and STEM content knowledge and practices. The program was developed through a partnership between the IU and Readable English, a multisensory reading program that is being initiated nationally and throughout Indiana. The project will provide approximately 90 informal and formal educators with professional development and follow-up support which will impact more than 3,600 students in rural southwest central Indiana. Scribner says the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated and deepened existing achievement gaps for local, underserved rural students. The project’s innovative and robust programming is aimed to help address this gap, he says.