Their work is through a School of Public Health and Information Sciences (SPHIS) training program that started with funding from Susan G. Komen for the Cure; it builds on National Cancer Institute-funded work of two faculty mentors.

“I have been affected by cancer on a personal level, and that motivates me to gain knowledge, and support the initiative to find a cure,” said doctoral student Stephanie Denkhoff. Avonne Connor and Nandita Das are working with her.

Their mentors in the program are Kathy and Richard Baumgartner, who work with the students to transition them into mentored dissertation and post-doctoral research where they test hypotheses on racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic differences in breast cancer risk and prognosis.

Kathy Baumgartner, a Bucks for Brains cancer epidemiologist, is the principal investigator for the New Mexico component of the 4-Corners Breast Cancer Study (4-CBCS). She began the study of 5,000 women both with and without breast cancer while on faculty at the University of New Mexico. It explores the differences between breast cancer incidence rates for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. So far she has focused on the relationship between breast cancer and obesity. She also considered genetics and other lifestyle exposures, such as diet and physical activity. Now, Denkhoff, Connor and Das are evaluating pre-collected DNA samples of the study participants to assess genetic variations that may predispose Hispanic women to have a greater risk of breast cancer.

Kathy Baumgartner also is the lead investigator on the Long Term Quality of Life Study (LTQOL) – a 12- 15-year follow-up of survival and quality of life for almost 1,600 women who participated in one of the New Mexico Women’s Health Study (NMWHS). From 1992 to 1996 that study examined differences in the risk of breast cancer for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white women.

All three Komen trainees have worked on LTQOL, conducting phone interviews with women who are breast cancer survivors, as well as with women who do not have a history of breast cancer. They asked women to rate their quality of life based on several factors, including general health, limitations due to physical and emotional well-being and the physical and mental impact of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The Komen grant provides Denkhoff, Connor and Das with tuition, health insurance and a stipend for two years. To participate in the training program, graduate students must have an interest in learning the reasons for differences in breast cancer rates among minority populations and want to translate research findings into clinical and public health practice to eliminate disparities.

“My experience as a Komen trainee has helped me discover my passion in health disparities and cancer research,” Connor said. “It is my goal to increase knowledge and close the gap in health disparities among minority and underserved populations.”

Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in women. About 3,600 women are diagnosed each year in Kentucky. Risk factors that explain ethnic and racial disparities in breast cancer rates may also be related to prognosis and survival.