Jewels in Our Genes: Breast Cancer Research Is All in the Family

Pictured: Driven to find out why so many women in her family had breast cancer, Veronica Meadows-Ray (center) asked a question that led to a historic study involving more than 400 African-American participants. At right is her mother, Mary; at left, her aunt, Evelyn Smith, who passed away last year. (University at Buffalo photo by Douglas Levere)

The Veronica Meadows-Ray Story

The incidence of breast cancer increases with age and is highest among white women. However, African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other group. Some of the reasons for this include later stage diagnoses, more aggressive tumors and earlier onset of disease, making treatment and survivorship more difficult.

While not the primary risk factor for getting breast cancer, family history does play a role in some cases. Veronica Meadows-Ray, a Buffalo, N.Y. resident, is a breast cancer survivor and a member of the Witness Project, a nationwide breast cancer information program housed at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center that specifically targets at-risk African-American women primarily through faith-based institutions.

“My personal interest in the realm of cancer education and advocacy started with my first experience with cancer more than 35 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with first colon cancer, and then breast cancer at the age of 68,” said Veronica. “I was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. Other members in my family, including another aunt and several cousins, have developed breast cancer, which obviously continues to bring great concern.”

Veronica approached Deborah Erwin, PhD, co-founder of the Witness Project and Director of the Office of Cancer Health Disparities Research at Roswell Park, inquiring why a family like hers has such a high prevalence of breast cancer even though they don’t carry the known BRCA gene mutations. This inquiry led to a discussion between Dr. Erwin and Heather Ochs-Balcom, PhD, a genetic epidemiologist in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professionals. In 2008, this led to the first national study of genes that increase breast cancer susceptibility in African-American families. The three-year study, called Jewels in Our Genes, was funded with a grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which allowed for recruitment of 150 African-American families both locally and nationally that have multiple cases of breast cancer.

“This grant is an exceptional example of the benefits of connecting the disease concerns of patients and the community with appropriate scientific expertise to initiate novel research,” said Dr. Erwin. “Through this research, we hope to find new genes that may help to identify biologic pathways to study in breast cancer.”

“My role in my family as the ‘breast cancer advocate’ led me to meet with and allowed me to ask questions of cancer researchers about how genes might impact African Americans most at-risk for getting cancer,” said Veronica. “My greatest accomplishment has been helping to launch this study that in the end may serve to improve future diagnosis, treatments and genetic testing for breast cancer.”

To learn more about Veronica’s story and the Jewels in Our Genes study, go to