Posted Oct. 1, 2008 –Breast Cancer takes a heavy toll on women, and Black women aren’t immune. Three million women will be diagnosed with the disease each year worldwide, and roughly 465,000 will die from it. Sorting out the myths from the facts is hard, but it could save your life. Here’s what our experts say.
Do Black women get more of the deadliest kind of cancer?
If you look at the incident per 100,000 of the more aggressive, invasive type of breast cancer called triple negative disease, the numbers aren’t much different for Blacks and Whites, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. However, a higher proportion of Black women breast cancer patients have triple negative disease. Thirty percent of Blacks get triple negative breast cancer, or what’s considered the bad type of breast cancer, while 20 percent of Whites get it. However, White women get more breast cancer, period, Brawley says.
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But Brawley flips the script a bit when he talks about “good” and “bad” cancer. He said what we should really be asking is why more White women get what’s considered the “good” breast cancer, or the more easily treated type of the disease? The answers are socioeconomic: More Black women live lives that increase their risk for cancer: more or overweight as youth, eat high-carb diets and not enough grains and vegetables, experts say. Also, Black females tend to their periods sooner – which studies show puts them at risk for the more aggressive form of breast cancer, Brawley says.
What is triple negative cancer?
Triple negative tumors, or “bad” breast cancer, don’t have estrogen receptors. This form of the disease grows quickly and doesn’t respond well to most of the common cancer drugs such as tamoxifen or trastuzumab because those drugs were developed to target estrogen receptors, said Dr. Lund of Emory University in Atlanta.
Do Black men and women die more often from breast cancer?
The good news is that when all conditions are equal, Black women with triple receptor-negative breast cancer survive just as long as other women with the disease, according to findings from a recent study of nearly 500 women. “When similar treatment, care, and follow-up are delivered to women with triple receptor-negative breast cancer, survival is similar between the two racial groups," Dr. Shaheenah Dawood said at a breast cancer conference sponsored by the American Society of Clinical Oncology last month.
Problem is, in the real world, things aren’t equal.
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African-Americans have the highest death rate from breast cancer. Only 76 percent of Black women are alive after the five-year hallmark of a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, while 90 percent of White women survive that long or longer. Also, according to federal Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER), the cancer registry, African-American men who were treated for black male breast cancer had a 66 percent, five-year survival rate compared to a 90 for White men with breast cancer.
What leads to shorter lives for Black women with breast cancer? Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with a later stage of breast cancer than White women, experts say. Black women also tend to get fewer mammograms; poorer quality screenings and treatment, and lack access to high-quality healthcare, Dr. Brawley say.
Good, early screenings, coupled with the right kind of treatment and follow-up, could save more lives, experts add.
Can we prevent breast cancer?
No. The fact that 80 percent of breast cancer patients have no family history of breast cancer says that doctors and scientists really don’t know what causes it or how to prevent it, medical experts say. Currently, there is no vaccine or other way to definitively prevent breast cancer.
Are Black women at greater risk for breast cancer?
All women are at risk for developing breast cancer. The older a woman is, the greater her chances of developing breast cancer. Approximately 77 percent of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50 years of age, according to American Cancer Society figures.
However, what women can do is lower their risk of cancer and cancer deaths in general, says Mary Harris, PhD, a medical researcher and medical educator. “The first thing you want to do is keep yourself healthy and you don’t want to be overweight, and, this is a problem for many African American women,” she says. “To lower your risk, you’ve got to watch your diet and exercise. A diet that’s high in vegetables, grains and a plant-based diet is a lot healthier. It’s better for your heart and reduces your incidence of cancer. Exercise also contributes to that.”
The other thing to do is to practice breast self-exams, and get a mammogram on a regular basis if you are over age 40 or sooner if you have a family history of breast cancer, says Harris, founder, President and CEO of Journey To Wellness, a multimedia health initiative created to provide information to African Americans and empower them to make better health care decisions.
Do mammograms work?
Yes and no. A mammogram is a picture of what’s going on in your breast and picks up calcifications or growths in your breast that could be cancerous. In younger women, who tend to have more dense or fibrous breasts, there are studies that show that mammograms don’t work as well as for older women. In younger women, the doctor’s exam is the best form of detection, Brawley says. Also, the quality of the mammography can affect whether cancers are caught early, he adds. Screenings work best when they are done properly, interpreted by good medical professionals and done on a regular basis so that doctors can compare them from one year to the next and spot abnormalities, experts say.
“This is more important than getting your hair done and getting a new outfit. We're talking about saving your life,” Harris says. “Unless we seek out early detection and treatment, we are going to continue to see high rates of death from this disease. Get informed, lose the fear and get busy.”
For more breast cancer myth-busting facts, go to Breastcancer.org.