Effect of Food Deserts on Ovarian Cancer Survival Being Examined


If eating fresh produce boosts cancer survival, as researchers have found, what happens to cancer patients in a food desert, a neighborhood with no supermarkets? Does such scarcity, common in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods, hamper residents’ survival of, say, ovarian cancer?

Charlotte Joslin, a UIC epidemiologist, is leading a team of researchers to answer this question. 

“Very little research has been done on links between local food environments and survival of cancer of any kind,” said Joslin, an assistant professor in ophthalmology with experience in cancer epidemiology. “Ovarian cancer may be a good model to examine this relationship because the stage of diagnosis is very similar between blacks and whites.”

Ovarian cancer affects about 3 percent of American women with cancer. Usually diagnosed at a late stage, it is the deadliest cancer of the female reproductive system. After five years, 37.4 percent of black women with this cancer survive while 45.8 percent of white women do.

The study will be done in three stages. First, using data from a previous study of 6,000 older adults in Chicago, the researchers will use statistical methods to establish the relationship between the consumption of produce, as reported by study participants, and the distance between their homes and supermarkets. Next, the researchers will mesh data from more than 5,000 cases of ovarian cancer in Cook County with supermarket listings from Dun and Bradstreet, and with statistical analysis assess the relationship between neighborhood survival rates and the absence or presence of supermarkets.

If this analytical model works, Joslin said, they can use it to predict future hotspots of ovarian cancer. It could also be used to illuminate nutritional influences in other health disparities.

“Now we’re looking just at supermarkets, which represent access to high-quality foods. That’s the first step. We plan to look at other food environments, such as access to fast food, which is low-quality, and other cancers,” she said. 

In March 2010, Joslin and colleagues in the School of Public Health found that high intake of fruits and vegetables before a diagnosis of ovarian cancer prolonged patients’ survival. In July, Joslin’s colleagues reported that black women with ovarian cancer face worse survival odds than white women regardless of when their disease is diagnosed.

The study is supported with a $454,500 grant from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health, through the UIC Center of Excellence in Eliminating Health Disparities, based at IHRP.

Other UIC investigators collaborating in the study are Richard Barrett, associate professor of sociology; Faith Davis, professor of epidemiology; Therese Dolecek, associate professor of epidemiology; Vincent Freeman, associate professor of epidemiology; and Seijeoung Kim, assistant professor of health policy and administration. Martha C. Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University, also is contributing to this study.

This news release was written by Veronica Johnston, IHRP communications director.