Breast Cancer Deaths Down, But Not as Much for Poor Women

Economics play a factor in survival rates.

Posted: 10/07/2011 11:12 AM EDT
Breast Cancer deaths down but not as much for poor women

So, the good news is that since the '90s, in general, breast cancer death rates have steadily decreased. But the not-so-good news is that the rates of death among women living in poverty are not slowing down as much. Researchers from the American Cancer Society have found that, between the years 2003 to 2007, women who live in more affluent neighborhoods had a 7 percent lower chance of dying than those who live in lower income areas.

 

They estimate that 40,000 women will die this year of breast cancer.

 

So what's going on?

 

Experts believe that there are a few factors at play here. First, women who have less money are less likely to be screened for breast cancer and receive mammograms. While screening rates have increased over the years, poorer women's numbers are still not as high. Only 51 percent of lower income women receive mammograms compared to 73 percent of their affluent counterparts. Secondly, experts believe that while the treatment has gotten better for breast cancer, not all women benefit from those breakthroughs. The Huffington Post reported:

 

Not all segments of the population have benefited equally from medical advances," the study’s authors write, citing advances in treatments such as adjuvant chemotherapy and improved targeted therapies. Indeed, DeSantis explained that among women with regional stage cancer — cancer that involves the lymph nodes — the five-year survival rate is 87 percent for women in affluent areas. In poor areas, it is only 80 percent.

 

"It is a very complicated picture," said Susan Brown, director of health education at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, who suggested that the rate disparity may also reflect the higher burden of complicating factors, including diabetes and obesity, among poor populations."We've known about the issue of poverty and its association with breast cancer for years and it continues to be a problem," she added.

 

In other breast cancer treatment news, a recent study suggested that poor women, older women and Latinas were more likely to receive unneeded breast cancer surgery. Researchers in California found that more than a third of some 18,000 women who had undergone a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer had had lymph nodes under the armpits removed as well. This was somewhat baffling given that this procedure should only be performed on women whose cancer had spread — and none of these particular women's cancer had spread beyond the breasts.

 

Reuters noted that these unneeded surgeries goes against the current guidelines that recommend a gentler surgery that spares the lymph nodes.

 

Sharon Lum, a breast surgeon at Loma Linda University in California who also worked on the study, speculates that doctors might be avoiding the gentler surgery. 

 

She told Reuters, "The gentler surgery isn't more expensive, but it does require more coordination between different departments, adding an extra step that some surgeons might prefer to avoid. She added, "There are surgeons that choose not to do it, and there are patients that don't know it's better. The take-home message for patients and surgeons is you have to be educated about the downstream consequences of the surgery you choose to do."

(Photo: REUTERS/Jim Bourg)


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