VCU professor awarded $1.7M grant to study impact of environment, race on cancer risk
Health, Virginia

VCU professor awarded $1.7M grant to study impact of environment, race on cancer risk

Rebecca Barnabi
(© spotmatikphoto –

Breast, colorectal and lung cancers accounted for more than 688,000 new cancer diagnoses in 2023.

According to the American Cancer Society, the new diagnoses reflect a significant racial and ethnic disparity in disease incidence and mortality.

Research has identified links between the incidence of the three cancers and certain immediate patient exposures at the time of diagnosis, but long-term cancer risk in different populations has yet to be investigated.

Dr. David Wheeler, a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center, was awarded a five-year, $1.7 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to address this gap in scientific understanding through the use of innovative statistical models and analysis.

“This is a first-of-its-kind comprehensive study investigating the variable patterns of geographic and neighborhood exposures that breast, colorectal and lung cancer patients experience as they change residences over the course of their lives, many years prior to a diagnosis,” Wheeler, who is also a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the VCU School of Medicine, said.

Wheeler and his team will use comprehensive data from state cancer registries in Virginia and Pennsylvania and advanced population-based statistical models to conduct a thorough assessment of neighborhood exposures over decades that could better explain factors leading to cancer incidence and disparities in regard to breast, colorectal and lung cancers.

“Our holistic approach could shed light on the most influential cancer risk factors,” Wheeler said. “Understanding the role of neighborhood histories in cancer risk can transform cancer prevention research by identifying societal factors driving health inequity, inform evidence-based policies to reshape structural neighborhood characteristics and advance our potential to reduce disparities in incidence and outcomes for some of the most common cancers.”

U.S. Census data indicate that Black cancer patients live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than white cancer patients, and Black cancer patients are diagnosed in the later stages of disease. They die at higher rates from cancer than other patients. The grant-funded research by Wheeler and his team will specifically examine the effects of historic racial segregation and neighborhood deprivation on breast, colorectal and lung cancers.

Wheeler was previously awarded more than $1.3 million to better understand environmental, geographic and socioeconomic risk factors that lead to bladder cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.