Award-winning Richmond doctor hopes to bridge the gap so more Black women will beat breast cancer

Posted at 10:53 AM, Mar 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-24 11:06:38-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As part of Women’s History Month, CBS 6 wanted to highlight not only the accomplishments and contributions women have and continue to make in society but also some of the hardships women face.

One of those hardships is breast cancer.

The VCU Massey Cancer Center helped produce a life-saving study into Black women recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the overall second leading cause of cancer deaths (after lung cancer) for women in the United States. However, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Black and Hispanic women, according to the American Cancer Society.

In an effort to save more lives, a Richmond doctor, in partnership with community members, patients, cancer survivors, and other physicians is trying to level the playing field by addressing significant health disparities for Black women with breast cancer.

Women like Janice Graham, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019.

GeNienne Samuels sits down with Janice Graham
GeNienne Samuels sits down with Janice Graham to discuss Graham's cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"I had a letter in the mail saying, Hey, come to the doctor. Call us to get another exam," Graham said.

After another round of testing, doctors delivered the cancer diagnosis.

Graham said she knew she had cancer even before doctors made it official.

"My sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year before, like exactly the January before," she said.

Janice Graham and her family
Janice Graham and her family

Her mother was diagnosed three years prior.

In the months to follow, Graham underwent immunotherapy resulting in a rash wrapping 90% of her body.

Chemotherapy followed, as did a single mastectomy, radiation, hair loss, and a hysterectomy after genetic testing came back positive for cervical cancer.

"It was rough. It was rough, but I just say, by the Grace of God, I'm here," she said.

Doctors declared Graham cancer free in October 2020.

Janice Graham rings the bell
Janice Graham rings the bell to indicate she is done with cancer treatments

In addition to her team of doctors, Graham credited her husband for coaching her through the trauma of treatments.

Her husband's impact has inspired Graham to coach others with cancer.

Janice Graham and her husband
Janice Graham and her husband

Using guidance from VCU Massey Cancer Center Associate Director Dr. Vanessa Sheppard, Graham empowers women to be an advocate in their own cancer care.

"It's a blessing to have this program," Graham said. "Dr. Shepard is amazing to just even think about African American women. We think of all of the things that women go through just in life in general. And then to add breast cancer on top of it is just a whole other set of responsibilities."

Sheppard tackles the harmful effects of the differing levels of cancer care on historically marginalized groups. The mission of her research program is to connect breast cancer survivors with women who have been newly diagnosed, guiding them toward the light during a dark time.

Vanessa Sheppard
VCU Massey Cancer Center Associate Director Dr. Vanessa Sheppard

"I do think that it is encouraging to see a person, who has completed their recommended treatment, is sitting across from you [to show] that they've survived," Sheppard said. "The coach goes through what we call our talk back model. And that's what we feel like is the crux of the intervention in terms of that woman being active and engaged in her treatment and decision making."

This particular research project, which was an effort almost two decades in the making, lead to the American Cancer Society naming Dr. Sheppard the Researcher of the Year.

"It is affirming just in terms of the work that we've been doing for a long time," Sheppard said.

The talk-back model to which Dr. Sheppard referred has four basic but important steps:

T is for tell
Tell your story to your doctor, what you’ve been going through, how you feel, and your preferences as it relates to treatment options

A is for ask questions
Write your question down before your appointment and remember, there are no dumb questions, so ask them all.

L is for listening actively
Make sure you understand what your doctor is saying. Record the conversation or write down what they say and ask more questions if necessary.

K is for knowing your options
Get clear on all of your treatment options based on what is recommended and works best for your situation

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