Black women who get breast cancer tend to be younger, have more aggressive cancers and die at rates greater than their white counterparts. Despite the fact that black women have a 10 percent lower incidence of breast cancer compared to white women, they have a death rate that’s 36 percent higher. Each day, breast cancer kills five black women in the United States.
In particular, black women are most likely to develop tumors referred to as being “triple negative.” Such cancers do not have receptors for progesterone, estrogen or a certain human growth factor. They represent a highly aggressive form of breast cancer that affects one-third of African American women who are diagnosed. “Triple negative” cancers tend to affect women younger than 40, and they grow more quickly and are harder to detect with mammograms.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women. According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, African American women have a five-year survival rate of 78 percent compared to 90 percent for white women in the United States.
Yet doctors report that African Americans tend to come in for screening at rates lower than whites. The women themselves say they’re often acting — or rather, failing to act — out of fear of what they may learn about their health.
Much study and hand wringing has gone into the reasons behind these discrepancies.
Possible factors include access to care and response to treatment, racial differences including increased likelihood of obesity, and lower rates of exercise. Adequate insurance coverage is important in terms of affecting access to the newest therapies, but studies conducted in populations with equal access to health care have shown that this alone does not account for the widening disparity.
In the meantime, a number of groups are doing training and advocacy to empower African American women to seek early detection and treatment.
The Sisters Network, based in Houston is an organization dedicated to increasing attention to the impact of breast cancer in the African American community. Founder Karen Jackson says she’s found an effective way to encourage black women to obtain breast cancer screenings. “What works is seeing a survivor, and hearing her story,” she said. “Many survivors admit that if they had gotten seen earlier, the outcomes could have been even better!”
The The 2012 Racial Disparity in Breast Cancer Mortality Study, released today by the Sinai Urban Health Institute and funded by the by Avon Foundation, underscored Jackson’s experience. The lead author, Steve Whitman, says, “Our research shows societal factors — not genetics — are largely to blame for the racial disparity in breast cancer mortality nationwide,"
Researchers offer a number of suggestions to help encourage women to seek screening and treatment as soon as possible. Some of those include educating women using culturally relevant breast health information with hotlines, multilingual Web sites and education in local communities and places of worship.
They have also recommended making it easier for low-income women and those who are uninsured or underinsured to find low-cost breast cancer screenings.
The disparity study calls on women and those who would treat them to change the current patterns.
“Black women can play an active role in reducing their risk of dying from breast cancer by getting screened and following through with treatment. But it’s incumbent on society to improve access to quality mammography and to ensure that breast cancer treatment is available to all women.”
Jamila Bey is host of “The Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila,” on AM 1390 in Washington, DC and AM 1430 in New York City.