Photo credit: Ariama C. Long

Black Women Die at Higher Rates From Breast Cancer Than Most

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8 mins read

Black women are still at a 40% higher risk of death from breast cancers than white women due to systemic racism and barriers to early diagnosis.

Originally appeared in New York Amsterdam News

By Ariama C. Long

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, but research shows that despite a slight decline in the mortality rate due to earlier detection and improvements in treatment, Black women are still at a 40% higher risk of death from breast cancers than white women.

“Our community is predominantly African American and Caribbean, and I think we always wait for that month when we commemorate breast cancer awareness in October, but we should be talking about breast cancer with our family and our community every day, all year round,” said Councilmember Farah Louis who hosted the Mammogram Bus in Flatbush, Brooklyn on Saturday, Sept. 17, in partnership with the American Italian Cancer Foundation. 

Louis recently opened a women’s clinic in Morris Heights in the Bronx. The city-funded bus offered free screenings to women over 40 who signed up. Some women brought their daughters. While women waited for their free screenings, Louis organized other health, wellness, and fitness activities to keep them and the kids motivated. All of the women who attended were women of color of various backgrounds. 

In one instance, a woman of Jamaican heritage from Bed Stuy who had been a nurse opted for the free screening because she had been let go last year after not getting vaccinated and had no insurance. She said otherwise she has gotten them every year since she was 40. She asked not to be identified.

Another attendee, who gave her initials as J.W., is a NYCHA city employee and a fitness enthusiast. “Historically, I think we just don’t prioritize ourselves enough,” she said when asked about why there is such a large gap of breast cancer awareness among Black women.

Our community is predominantly African American and Caribbean, and I think we always wait for that month when we commemorate breast cancer awareness in October, but we should be talking about breast cancer with our family and our community every day, all year round.

FARAH LOUIS, COUNCILMEMBER

In a Susan G. Komen report published last year, “Closing the Breast Cancer Gap: A Roadmap to Save the Lives of Black Women in America,” the nationwide breast cancer awareness organization studied 10 cities with the highest reported disparities for Black women when it comes to breast cancer. The cities were Dallas, Memphis, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Tidewater, Va., Houston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

The report found that Black women experience higher rates of death from breast cancer because of a myriad of factors, including “barriers to early diagnosis, the aggressive nature of certain breast cancers that are more prevalent in Black women, and systemic racism, discrimination and a lack of quality care.” 

Black women who often spoke up for themselves within the healthcare setting were ignored or met with disapproval, which often led to delays in treatment and deepening mistrust, said the report. 

Natasha Mmeje, director of community education and outreach at Susan G. Komen, said that there’s a huge disparity in death rates in women of color and that Black women tend to be diagnosed with later-stage breast cancer as well. Breast cancers, such as triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and inflammatory breast cancer, are considered highly aggressive because they grow and spread quickly. TNBC is commonly found in Black women younger than 40 or ones that have the BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations in their genes. This type of breast cancer also, unfortunately, has fewer treatments available than other types.

“It’s a perfect storm of issues that have been brewing for a long time in our country, and they expand across health care and generally our society at large,” said Mmeje. “Really, what we know is that Black women are dying more than white women because all of our systems have failed them and continue to fail them at every point in their breast cancer journeys.” 

Mmeje posited that one explanation for such high death rates among Black women could be the lack of early access to mammograms since most doctors recommend screenings at 40 and not at younger ages where Black women are being affected. 

Black women experience higher rates of death from breast cancer because of a myriad of factors, including ‘barriers to early diagnosis, the aggressive nature of certain breast cancers that are more prevalent in Black women, and systemic racism, discrimination and a lack of quality care.’

The Komen report concluded that other root causes for the disparities may be a lack of knowledge and study of genetic testing in the Black community, inequitable research on Black women in clinical trials, a high percentage of medically underserved communities, and the social and economic gap. Historically, said the study, Black people do not volunteer for genetic testing and studies, and Black women are less likely to go to the doctor or take prescribed medications.

Dr. Vivian Bea is the section chief of breast surgical oncology at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and an assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. In a short blog, she suggested that knowing your risk, as well as family history, getting screened early and bringing a friend for support if you can, and administering self-breast exams are good methods to lowering the chances of breast cancer. She emphasized that women should not let fear stop them.

Esther Lelievre is a founder at Cultivated Community Foundation Powered by AYR Wellness and a cancer survivor. She was one of the cannabis wellness vendors at the mammogram bus event. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 19 as a freshman in college. Even though most of her cervix had been removed, she still managed to get pregnant and have a son at 20. Lelievre is a huge advocate for cannabis usage among cancer patients and is excited to see the growth of the industry in New York City.

Ariama C. Long is a reporter for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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