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Mary Beth Terry, PhD

Professor, Department of Epidemiology
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University
New York, New York

Current Research

Goal: To understand the impact of environmental exposures on breast cancer risk.

Impact: Drs. Terry and Santella are conducting international studies of how non-genetic changes to DNA and environmental concerns such as pollution affect the likelihood of developing breast cancer in average- and high-risk women. Their findings may lead to better risk prediction models in high-risk individuals.                    

What’s next: The team will expand their investigations to Columbia as well as to parts of West Africa, where rates of early-onset breast cancer are high. They will also study the role that DNA repair plays in the development of second cancers and survival.

When breast cancer occurs frequently in families, it can be due to both genetics and environmental factors. A person’s DNA can affect how their body responds to various environmental influences, such as diet, chemical exposures, and so forth. Drs. Terry and Santella are conducting several ongoing studies that measure these exposures and non-genetic damage to DNA in order to improve breast cancer risk prediction models for high-risk families.

Full Research Summary

Research area: Understanding the impact on environmental exposures on breast cancer risk in high-risk women.

Impact: Environmental chemicals such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and DDT cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. The severity of the damage and the ability to repair it influences the risk for development of breast cancer. Women with an already high risk of breast cancer due to inherited factors or strong family history, may be more vulnerable to the exposure to environmental pollutants. Drs. Terry and Santella have been investigating how environmental exposures and genetic susceptibility – specifically as it relates to the ability to repair DNA damage – are related to breast cancer risk. This work will improve risk assessment models and allow for more precise preventive interventions.

Current research: Drs. Terry and Santella are developing tests to measure different types of DNA damage in a sample of blood to study how DNA repair deficiency affects breast cancer risk among diverse populations of high-risk women in the U.S., Taiwan, and Africa.

What they’ve learned so far: In previous BCRF supported work, the team found that exposure to PAH, a common environmental pollutant, increased the risk of breast cancer in high risk women. They did not, however, see the same affect in Taiwanese women of average risk.

What’s next: In the coming year, they will expand their studies of DNA repair capacity in a pilot study in the African country, Ghana and analyze the effect of DNA repair deficiency on the risk of second cancer and overall mortality in women with a history of breast cancer.


Mary Beth Terry, PhD, is a Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She focuses her research on breast cancer and in the molecular epidemiology and life-course methods of the disease, in particular. She is a cancer epidemiologist with over 15 years of leading studies of breast cancer etiology specifically focused on the role genetics, epigenetics, and other biomarkers play in modifying the effects of environmental exposures. Dr. Terry currently leads four NIH grants through the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences that focus on following cancer risk within family-based cohorts. Her more recent work studying biomarkers, which can be modified throughout life, supports the assertion that selected markers of DNA methylation and other biomarkers are associated with breast cancer risk even within high risk families. Understanding whether biomarkers can help explain risk in higher risk women is important, as only a minority of women with a family history of cancer carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Her work also focuses on measuring risk factors for mammographic density, a strong intermediate marker of breast cancer. In addition to her doctorate in epidemiology from Columbia University, Dr. Terry has a Master's degree in economics and previously worked as an econometrician and program evaluator for a number of government-sponsored programs. Dr. Terry teaches introductory and advanced epidemiologic methods at the Mailman School of Public Health.

Large Researcher Headshot - Terry Mary Beth

BCRF Investigator Since


Donor Recognition

The Aveda Award

Area(s) of Focus