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Exercise Protects Against Aggressive Breast Cancer in African-American Women

December 11, 2013 – Black women who exercise vigorously every week are more likely to be protected against the most aggressive subtype of breast cancer, according to a nearly 20-year observational study of almost 45,000 African American women co-led by Georgetown researchers.

The findings from the Black Women’s Health Study, the largest study of African-American women, were presented today at the 2013 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

“These findings are very encouraging," says Lucile Adams-Campbell, an internationally known epidemiologist at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Knowing that exercise may protect against breast cancers that disproportionately strike black women is of great public health importance.” 

Largest Study of Black Women

A professor of oncology and associate director for minority health and health disparities at Georgetown Lombardi, Adams-Campbell leads the cancer center’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities Research, located in southeast Washington, D.C.  She is associate dean of community health and outreach at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

The Office of Minority Health, which provides a community “anchor” for cancer-related research, is designed to research and reduce cancer disparities among minority and underserved communities in the nation’s capital. This research is a vital part of a $6.1-million health disparities research grant awarded to GUMC by the National Institutes of Health in 2011.

Adams-Campbell, also a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine, was instrumental in launching the Black Women’s Health Study in Boston and continues the research at Georgetown.

Hours of Exercise

Scientists at Georgetown Lombardi and Boston University who co-lead the research team for the Black Women’s Health Study found that black women who exercised briskly for an average of three or more hours a week had a 47 percent reduced incidence of an aggressive breast cancer type compared to those exercising about one hour per week.

The form of breast cancer, called estrogen receptor-negative, is linked to both higher incidences of breast cancer and death in black women compared to white women. The tumors associated with this type of cancer do not respond to hormone therapies used to treat tumors that have the estrogen receptor.

The study also showed that any level of exercise appeared to have no effect on development of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer in these women.

The National Cancer Institute has funded the Black Women’s Health Study since its inception in 1995.

“We all want to do what we can to reduce our risk of disease and improve our health,” Adams-Campbell says, “and along with other well known benefits, we now show that exercise can possibly stave off development of potentially lethal breast cancer in black women.”

This study was supported by the National Cancer Institute (NCI 2 R01 CA058420-16A1).