UH Cancer Study Receives $1.5 Million Grant from NIH

Asian-American Breast Cancer Survivors Focus of Study

Qian Lu

After earning her medical degree in China, Qian Lu, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, believed she could help patients more by treating the mind as well as the body. She then decided to pursue a doctorate in psychology in the U.S.

“I felt as a trained physician in China, I could help patients by saving a life, but there were a lot of conditions that were chronic and I couldn’t get rid of the illness. The key was to help patients have a better quality of life as a whole person, not just as a patient,” said Lu.

Lu’s commitment to helping others motivates her research at the University of Houston. She recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health for the study, “Joy Luck Academy: A Culturally Sensitive Social Support Intervention.”  This study will assess the impact of a culturally-based social support group among Chinese-American women breast cancer survivors. 

The five-year study follows 210 Chinese-American women recently diagnosed with breast cancer who actively participate in a support group called the “Joy Luck Academy” (JLA). These women work with a peer mentor, who is also a graduate of JLA and a cancer survivor, for eight weeks. Lu’s goal is to assess whether social support improves quality of life, and reduces depressive symptoms, fatigue and stress among women who have a breast cancer diagnosis.

“We hope to provide evidence for whether this program will work. If the JLA is effective and improves the well-being among Chinese-American breast cancer survivors, the model may be disseminated as an effective, low-cost intervention for other groups of Asian-American breast cancer survivors across the country,” said Lu.

A bestselling novel by Amy Tan about four Chinese immigrant women in San Francisco who meet, talk about their lives, share unspeakable loss and hope, and call themselves the “Joy Luck Club” is the inspiration for the name of the support group called JLA.

“Despite their own challenges, the women in the Joy Luck Club were happy when they were together and they would guide each other on their journey,” Lu said. “This name, JLA, developed by our research and community-based partner the Herald Cancer Association is very appropriate for our peer mentor support program. We are essentially bringing women together to guide each other on a shared journey.”

A pilot study was conducted by Lu’s team. Titled “Evaluating a Culturally Tailored Peer-Mentoring and Education Pilot Intervention Among Chinese Breast Cancer Survivors Using a Mixed-Methods Approach,” the study was published in the Oncology Nursing Forum this month. During its research, the team found JLA reduced depressive symptoms.

“This is actually huge because it’s not that easy to reduce depressive symptoms,” said Lu.

Preliminary findings from the pilot study found many of the Chinese-American women with breast cancer felt lonely, hopeless, isolated and stigmatized. After participating in JLA, they felt they could open up and talk about their own experience as normal lives. They found they had mentors to look up to and peers with whom they could share their experience.

“JLA helps provide information to newly diagnosed breast cancer survivors, but also emotional and experiential support from a mentor who is a breast cancer survivor, adjusted well and knows what the you need to do to move beyond cancer,” said Lu.

The eight-week JLA starts with a presentation from an experienced professional. The topics include:

  • Understanding a pathology report
  • Understanding the treatment options
  • Understanding how to exercise appropriately
  • Nutrition information
  • Managing and recognizing emotions
  • Recognizing depressive symptoms
  • How to communicate with family members
  • How to build a better body image.

Lu will use two sets of measures in the research study. One measure includes various objectives and assessments through self-reporting. The other involves taking eight saliva samples in two days to measure the levels of cortisol in their saliva which is an indicator of their level of stress. Lu wants to see how the cortisone changes as a result of participating in JLA.

Lu notes psychosocial interventions have been shown to be effective for the mainstream population of breast cancer survivors, but few psychosocial interventions have been successfully designed for ethnic groups of color.  The larger contribution of the study is that this is the first randomized controlled trial to assess the impact of a culturally-based social support program among Chinese-American breast cancer survivors, such as JLA.

“There was no study in this area, so we really don’t know what kind of intervention would work for Asian-American breast cancer survivors. This is really the first one,” said Lu.


About the University of Houston
The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 40,900 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country. For more information about UH, visit the university’s newsroom at http://www.uh.edu/news-events/