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Julie Palmer, ScD

Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine
Boston, Massachusetts

Titles and Affiliations

Karin Grunebaum Professor in Cancer Research, Hematology/Oncology,
Department of Medicine
Director, Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University
Co-Director, Boston University/Boston Medical Cancer Center

Health Equity Initiative

Research area

Investigating the drivers of breast cancer in Black women.


In the last 30 years, deaths from breast cancer have declined by 43 percent. Yet, that tremendous progress has not been experienced equally and certain populations are at higher risk for worse breast cancer outcomes. Black women in particular face stark, sobering, and unacceptable disparities. They are diagnosed at younger ages and at more advanced stages of breast cancer, are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at two times the incidence and—despite being diagnosed at similar rates—are 41 percent more likely to die from their breast cancer than non-Hispanic white women. Eliminating racial disparities in breast cancer incidence, diagnosis, and treatment is an urgent priority.

With generous support from the Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation, BCRF launched the Health Equity Initiative—Breast Cancer Drivers in Black Women: Society to Biology—to address the existing breast cancer mortality gap between white women and Black women. In this era of personalized medicine, BCRF’s goal is to significantly reduce breast cancer disparities and improve outcomes among Black women by advancing personalized, evidence-based care.

One of the major barriers is that Black women are an understudied population, comprising less than 5 percent of patients enrolled in cancer clinical trials where their experience could inform treatment recommendations. Furthermore, single institution studies of Black women are too small in both size and scope to address the complex interactions between race, heredity, genetics, environment, socioeconomic and cultural factors that impact breast cancer risk, biology, and outcomes. As more women are diagnosed with breast cancer, even more are likely to experience the injustice of worse, and preventable, health outcomes. And this poses a significant challenge as the underlying causes of breast cancer disparities are complex and multifactorial. The Health Equity Initiative will address this unmet need and work to close the disparities gap.

What’s next

BCRF has convened leading breast cancer investigators to participate in the Health Equity Initiative, including Dr. Palmer who has considerable expertise in conducting large clinical trials with a focus on Black women, notably as a founding leader of the Black Women’s Health Study. These researchers are conducting a comprehensive study to examine the interaction of comorbidities, social determinants of health, and breast cancer genetics in Black women in a bold and novel way. This multi-center effort will enable researchers and clinical trialists across the U.S. to assemble a large database of contemporary SDoH and genetic profiles in Black women with breast cancer. Coupled with treatment and outcomes data this database will allow investigators to develop a comprehensive picture that captures the heterogeneity of breast cancer in Black women.


Julie Palmer, ScD, MPH, is the Karin Grunebaum Professor in Cancer Research at the Boston University School Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Cancer Center at Boston University/Boston Medical Center. She serves as Director of the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University and is a Komen Scholar. Dr. Palmer is a founding leader of the Black Women’s Health Study, a prospective study of 59,000 U.S. Black women who first joined the study in 1995.

Dr. Palmer’s research program focuses on elucidating reasons for the disproportionately high breast cancer mortality experienced by Black women in the U.S. Specific projects have involved identifying novel risk factors for triple-negative breast cancer, developing a risk prediction tool for young Black women, determining associations of mutations in breast cancer predisposition genes with breast cancer risk in Black women, and assessing the relation of neighborhood disadvantage and other social factors to breast cancer incidence and mortality.

In 2017, Dr. Palmer was awarded the AACR Distinguished Lectureship on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in recognition of her research in these areas. She has served on many review and advisory committees, including as Chair of the NIH Cancer, Cardiovascular, and Sleep Epidemiology Study Section and Co-Chair of a working group for the National Cancer Advisory Board. She has also chaired review panels on breast cancer research for both the Department of Defense and the Komen Foundation. Dr. Palmer currently serves as an Associate Editor for Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, and on the editorial board of Breast Cancer Research.

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation