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VCU Massey Cancer Center's Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., honored as American Cancer Society’s Researcher of the Year

The award recognizes an individual whose innovative research has also benefited from an American Cancer Society grant.

Vanessa Sheppard smiles with a tropical photograph behind her.  Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., has been awarded American Cancer Society’s Researcher of the Year for her work to advance cancer research. (VCU Massey Cancer Center)

By Annie Harris

Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., associate director for community outreach and engagement and health disparities research at VCU Massey Cancer Center, has won the American Cancer Society’s 2022 Researcher of the Year Award for her remarkable advances in cancer research.

The award recognizes an investigator who, in addition to their innovative, impactful research, has benefitted from an American Cancer Society (ACS) extramural grant. ACS awarded $1.5 million to Sheppard, one of the largest investigator grants given in Virginia. A leading expert in health disparities research, Sheppard focuses on disparities within breast cancer outcomes and addressing those disparities by developing approaches to improve survivors’ quality of life or cancer care delivery, such as improving the communication taking place between clinicians and Black breast cancer patients.

“I’m thrilled to receive this honor, and grateful for the opportunity to shine a light on the incredibly common and harmful effects of cancer disparities on historically marginalized groups,” said Sheppard, who also serves as the associate vice president of population and public health strategic initiatives and the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control at the VCU School of Medicine. “With interventions like the one funded by my ACS grant, we’re able to discover and test concrete, effective ways to remediate those disparities in the communities we serve. This research project is particularly meaningful to me as it was developed in concert with patients and their families. Massey is the perfect center to implement this study.”

“Not only is [Sheppard] an innovative, community-based researcher who champions needed change in health care, she’s also a mentor inspiring the next generation of physicians and scientists." 

- Robert A. Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center

Black women have a 40% higher chance of dying from their breast cancer compared to white women. Sheppard’s ACS-funded study seeks to improve uptake of chemotherapy and adjuvant hormone therapy among Black breast cancer patients. In this randomized clinical trial participants will either receive enhanced usual care or Sheppard’s intervention. The communication and decision-support intervention pairs newly diagnosed Black breast cancer patients with Black breast cancer survivor-coaches who have undergone similar therapies and have been trained to implement the study protocol.

The pairs work though a patient guidebook and decision-support materials designed to prepare the newly diagnosed women to ask more questions and engage with their providers. Systemic therapy and patient-provider communication are shown to influence breast cancer outcomes; initial results show that the intervention increases uptake in recommended therapies.

“I’m so proud and pleased to see Vanessa and her work recognized,” said Robert A. Winn, M.D., director of Massey Cancer Center. “Not only is she an innovative, community-based researcher who champions needed change in health care, she’s also a mentor inspiring the next generation of physicians and scientists. Her work is at the core of Massey's efforts to reimagine the role of cancer centers in communities."

Sheppard’s approach embeds clinical research in the community to achieve equity, using community navigators to educate and support people through their cancer care and to improve access to treatments and clinical trials. She stresses the importance of bidirectional communication to gain and maintain trust and the importance of keeping the community of study informed on the progress, barriers and achievements gained through research.

“We are grateful for Dr. Sheppard’s leadership, compassion and innovation in addressing these significant health disparities,” said David Chelmow, M.D., interim dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “This important recognition is a testament to the impact of her work on the communities we serve and a better future for patients in Richmond and beyond.” 

Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D.

Sheppard with VCU Massey Cancer Center team members and participants in the Sisters Informing Sisters © program. (VCU Massey Cancer Center)

ACS describes Sheppard as a staunch advocate for engaging young women and minority groups in health sciences and research as a future career to better reflect representation from the communities that are served. 

“We are honored to highlight the impactful and lifesaving work Dr. Sheppard is doing to improve outcomes for Black breast cancer patients, who are disproportionately burdened by this disease,” said Karen E. Knudsen, MBA, Ph.D., CEO of the American Cancer Society. “Her contributions toward reducing disparities and advancing cancer research are invaluable and are highly aligned to our overall goal to end cancer as we know it, for everyone.”

“This work is possible because of the patients who participated in my studies, my outstanding research teams, the advisors, mentors, community advocates, funders and organizations that have worked alongside me,” said Sheppard. “I fully support the mission of the ACS and the work they do for those impacted by cancer. Their investment in my research has been phenomenal and together with Massey I am committed to working towards a future without cancer.”