Why Breast Cancer Awareness Needs To Include Black Women, Too
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
October 12, 2015 at 6:00 am
Thanks to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, October is widely recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness month. We see pink ribbons everywhere and NFL players are adorned with bright pink socks, towels and wristbands. We Race for the Cure in cities across the world and recognize those who have suffered at the hands of this disease. And these efforts are absolutely beautiful. Even with all of these activities, black women are noticeably absent from the conversation. Most people still have misconceptions about breast cancer and how it affects racial groups differently. Below are three things we usually don't hear about how breast cancer affects black women.
1. It affects black women earlier
Breast cancer is not just an old woman's disease. About one in ten new breast cancer cases are found in women under the age of 45. Black women experience breast cancer at much younger ages than white women. Researchers haven't quite pinpointed why, but black women under the age of 40 get more invasive breast cancer more often than white women. For black and Hispanic women living in poverty, the rate of aggressive breast cancer at a young age is even higher. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage in the disease than white women, limiting options for treatment.
2. It's deadlier for black women
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer was the deadliest cancer for black women aged 45 to 64 in 2010. A CDC study showed the 90 percent of white women will live at least five more years after surviving cancer. The same study showed that only 77 percent of black women will hit that five-year mark. Black women are also twice as likely as white women to develop a more aggressive form that has fewer treatment options, which are further limited by unequal access to care. Our mammograms are often more difficult to read because of what health professionals call "dense breast," which is more common among black women. This can lead to a missed diagnosis if not carefully examined. As a result, a black woman and a white woman might receive the same diagnosis on the same day but the black woman has a much higher chance of dying before the white woman.
3. Researchers working for women of color don't get The Big Bucks
There have been significant advances in breast cancer research and treatment in the past 25 years; however, a lot of questions still go unanswered, especially when it comes to understanding how the disease affects black women. Many of the dollars that are raised during October don't make it into the hands of researchers who are trying to eliminate the burden for women of color. The Black Women's Health Imperative started the Moving Beyond Pink campaign to ensure that all women benefit from the treatment currently available for breast cancer treatment. Breast Cancer Action works to achieve health justice for women through social accountability. Looking for ways to donate? Check out a list of reputable organizations curated by TIME last year, which includes groups that take your money the furthest.
Knowing your risk can help. Certain women are at a higher risk of getting breast cancer earlier, regardless of race. Many women never experience symptoms before being diagnosed with early breast cancer, so talk to your doctor if you have the following risk factors:
- Your parents or siblings were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer before they were 45 years old
- You have been told you have dense breast on a mammogram
- Previous radiation therapy to the chest before age 30
The National Cancer Institute offers a full list of risk factors. Check yourself early and often, too. The CDC recommends that all women should begin getting mammograms at age 50, but there are much simpler things we can do before then. The American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 20 and 39 should get clinical breast exams at least every three years. This is when you go to your OB/GYN and they open your paper gown and feels for lumps. Monthly self-exams are usually recommended for women of any age. Set yourself a reminder in your phone, or, if you're on a birth control pill, do the exam when you finish a pack. Ask your doctor how to do it or follow these easy steps. You can even have your boo help!