First national study looks at debilitating chemotherapy side effects in black women

Saysha Wright is taking part in a clinical study looking at neuropathy. (WTHR Staff / Clint Erbacher)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WTHR) — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the nation's first clinical trial for a demographic that suffers from a debilitating side effect from chemotherapy is happening right here in Indiana.​

Saysha Wright was recently diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.

"Mentally I feel like I'm stronger, but there are some days that are really hard," says Wright.

While she goes through chemotherapy, the 32-year-old is also giving back by taking part in a clinical trial.

"Of course I would want to help any other black woman going forward to not get it and to find out why it only affects us," Wright said.

Andrea Morehead talks with Dr. Bryan Schneider. (WTHR Staff / Clint Erbacher)

Doctor Bryan Schneider is leading the first national study to better understand the debilitating chemotherapy side effects of neuropathy.

"Clinical trials in the United States have been markedly underrepresented by African-Americans," Dr. Schneider said.

He's a physician-scientist at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research. He's also a professor of medicine, medical and molecular genetics, and the Vera Bradley chair of oncology at IU School of Medicine.

"We think we've discovered biomarkers or blood tests to see who gets neuropathy," Dr. Schneider said.

Neuropathy is nerve damage that can show up as weakness, numbness or throbbing pain and itching in the hands and feet during chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes it can be permanent after chemo. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 19, 2018. I have been in remission since August 9, 2019 and still suffer from neuropathy. I take the prescription drug Gabapentin two times every day to lessen the pain.

Neuropathy is more commonly found in black women, almost double the risk compared to women of other races. This first-of-its kind study hopes to figure out why.

"We just take a blood sample. We take the red blood cell and we transform it into a nerve," Dr. Schneider said. "What we do is expose these nerves in a test tube to chemotherapy, and we start to see the neurons retract back and being damaged."

“There are so many people who are experiencing it and won't share.”

The goal is to find drugs to better treat neuropathy, and at best, prevent it from ever happening.

Pamela Yancy is a breast cancer survivor who's neuropathy came back for a while last winter.

"This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I said six years (as a survivor) and I cried. There are so many people who are experiencing it and won't share, and if someway it can be alleviated, I think it will make your life much better. We have to be our own advocates."

This topic of neuropathy, especially for triple negative breast cancer patients, was front and center at this year's R.E.D. Alliance Symposium with a focus to end healthcare disparities.

The R.E.D. (Reaching to End Disparities) Alliance, Inc. is an Indianapolis organization that seeks to reduce breast cancer late-stage diagnosis, and death rates for African-American women. In fact, African-American women in Indianapolis are 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than Caucasian women, despite comparable rates of screening and a lower likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The Alliance collaborates with researchers, health professionals, healthcare organizations, advocates, support services providers, government agencies, breast cancer survivors and members of faith-based communities with the goal of reducing breast cancer late-stage diagnosis and death rates for African American women. I am now a board member of the R.E.D. Alliance.

"I'm just excited that the doctors there at the IU School of Medicine have decided to take this on and The R.E.D. Alliance is really excited to partner with them to help them recruit participants and to make a change," said Lisa Hayes, executive director or R.E.D.

"Right now we have three patients. The trial opened up about two months ago, and it'll be open at 85 sites across the United States" said Dr. Schneider.

While Saysha Wright is fighting to beat breast cancer, she hopes her participation in the trial will provide critical information to improve chemotherapy side-effects.

"I do not want to have another woman to have to go through this, but if they do, maybe the research will be able to help them so they're not affected," Wright said.

The trial is open to any African-American woman who is currently going through chemotherapy. This national study needs 240 participants. If you, or if you know of anyone, who is interested in this clinical trial, click here.

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