I’m a 28 year old black woman and recently someone told me that breast cancer affects women of color more than white women. Should I be worried?
Breast cancer affects all women, but the disease affects women differently, depending on their race, socio-economic status and where they live in the world.
If you live in the U.S. (or Europe, Japan, Australia)
According to the National Cancer Institute, about one out of every eight women born today in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during her life. Factors that can also increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer are: age, inherited changes in certain genes, a personal or family history of breast cancer, having dense breasts, beginning to menstruate before age 12, starting menopause after age 55, having a first full-term pregnancy after age 30, never having been pregnant, obesity after menopause, and alcohol use.
In the U.S., Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for black women aged 45–64 years. Here is a shocking fact- black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, but black women have a higher risk of dying from breast cancer. The death rate is 60% higher for Black women than white women. Wow. So what’s the story here?
Breast cancer also tends to appear in black women at a younger age and in more advanced forms. Black women also tend to have more dense breast tissue, one of the risk factors for cancer. Abnormalities in breast tissue are harder to see in a denser breast. The National Cancer Institute reports that in the United States, breast cancer is diagnosed more often in white women than in African American/black, Hispanic/Latina, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native women. Don’t become statistic ladies! Go get those breasts examined so any abnormalities are detected and treated early.
If you live elsewhere in the world (Africa, Asia, South America)
Breast cancer is the top cancer in women worldwide and is increasing particularly in developing countries where the majority of cases are diagnosed in late stages. Early detection and early access to treatment offers the best chance of survival. Sadly, this is almost impossible for many women in the world.
I just read an amazing article in the New York Times about breast cancer in Uganda. In many developing countries, women are unable to obtain treatment because of cost, transportation, availability of medicines and long waits for an appointment. This article describes a woman seen in the waiting room of a hospital. When the doctor passed through the room of despondent patients, this woman cried out and opened her blouse to show the doctor her ulcerated breast. She got the doctor’s attention and received treatment that day. The reporter writes, “It takes nerve for a patient anywhere to buttonhole a doctor and demand attention. More than nerve, it takes self-esteem and a sense of one’s rights as a patient.”
So here is a lesson from this brave woman. We do no one a service by staying quiet. Do not be too afraid to ask, do not be too shy to demand attention and do not put off an exam or treatment. Extend a hand to your friends and family and advocate for them if they are unable to do so for themselves.
Regardless of where you live, your socio-economic status or race, the common denominator for all women is that the earlier the cancer is detected and treatment obtained, the greater your odds of survival. I encourage all SuzyKnew readers to do breast self exams every month, get a clinical breast exam as part of your annual check up (when you get your PAP smear), and go get that mammogram. If you have a strong family history of cancer or other risk factors, your doctor will have a specific plan for you.