New Facts on Black Women and Breast Cancer

October 16, 2011  |  
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An estimated 6,040 black women’s lives are expected to be lost to breast cancer in 2011 and a total of 26,840 new cases of the disease will be seen among us by the end of the year. Breast cancer is one of those things we hear about so regularly that we tend to ignore it because we think we already know it all. But disregarding new information could severely affect our health down the line.

As we recognize breast cancer awareness this month, it’s time to take a new look at how breast cancer affects us and what we can do to minimize its impact.

Fact # 1: Breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second leading cause of death among African American women. (American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans 2011-2012)

These stats are nothing to snooze at. Breast cancer only falls behind lung cancer in the number of lives it claims and cancer overall is the second leading cause of death among black women. We have reason to be concerned.

Fact #2: African American and white women now have the same rate of mammography use. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Surveillance of screening-detected cancers [colon and rectum, breast, and cervix] – United States, 2004-2006)

Black women used to fall behind other women in terms of screening rates, but thanks to increased education we’ve caught up. In 2008, 82 percent of African American women and 81 percent of Caucasian women ages 50 to 74 had a mammogram within the past two years. Among women 40 and older, that number dropped to 68 percent for both African American and Caucasian women. These stats are pretty good, but there’s still room for improvement. Clinical breast exams are recommended at least every three years starting at age 20, and every year starting at age 40 for women at average risk. Ask your health care provider which screening tests are best for you if you are at higher risk.

Fact #3: Among women under age 40, African Americans have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women. (American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2009-2010)

Overall, breast cancer incidence in black women is less than that of white women. But when it comes to women under 40, breast cancer is more prevalent among black women. Individuals in this segment are also more likely to be diagnosed with larger tumors than white women. These stats speak volumes to the need for early detection. Larger tumors mean the cancer has grown undetected for a greater period of time, reducing the cure probability.

Fact #4: The five-year survival rate for African American women diagnosed with breast cancer is 79 percent. (American Cancer Society, Cancer Facts & Figures 2010)

This figure is lower than that of any other ethnic and racial group in the United States. A few reasons for the disparity are biologic and genetic differences in tumors; the presence of risk factors; barriers to health care access, particularly follow-up after a tumor has been detected during screening; unhealthy behaviors such as diet; and being diagnosed at a later stage.

Fact #5: The incidence of a second breast cancer in an opposite breast is higher among black women. (Fourth American Association for Cancer Research Conference, The Science of Cancer Health Disparities, Sept. 18-21, 2011)

Even after surviving one bout of breast cancer, there’s always the risk of recurrence or developing a tumor in the opposite breast. In data presented at the AACR conference, contra lateral breast cancer tended to occur within the first two years of the primary breast cancer diagnosis. The fact that black women have a higher risk of a second breast cancer is puzzling to researchers given the fact that black women have a higher mortality rate with their first cancer diagnosis. The finding emphasizes black women’s need to be their own health care advocates and make sure their doctors are properly monitoring them post-diagnosis.


Fact #6: The prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency in black women is up to six times higher than that of white women. (Era of Hope Breast Cancer Conference, Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, Aug.2-5, 2011)

Low levels of vitamin D are thought to be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, particularly the triple-negative subtype. The high melanin content in darker skin reduces Vitamin D absorption so black women have to be especially mindful of their Vitamin D intake to reduce their cancer risk.  Although few foods contain vitamin D, the nutrient can be found in a few good sources such as the flesh of fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.

Fact #7: “Traditional” values are associated with worse screening histories and lower screening intentions. (Cancer Control 2008;15(1):63-71).

This is perhaps the area where the greatest change can take place. The black community tends to be suspicious of the health care system and rarely seeks the opinion of medical professionals, but that mindset could be killing us. Ignoring screening recommendations or failing to receive follow-up care could mean the difference in surviving breast cancer or dying from it. Be proactive about finding a physician you are comfortable with and heed their advice.

Fact #8: Women who don’t breast feed have a 50 percent higher chance of developing certain types of breast cancer. (Black Women’s Health Study, Cancer Epidemiology, Bio-markers & Prevention, 2011)

Women who breastfeed do not have this same increased risk. The moral of the story? Breast feed. Unfortunately, breast feeding is less common among black mothers. A recent study found that 54 percent of black mothers try breast feeding, compared with the national average of 73 percent. We already know breast milk is healthier for babies but it can also improve mom’s health too!


Fact #9: African American women who use oral contraceptives have a greater likelihood of developing breast cancer. (Black Women’s Health Study, Cancer Epidemiology, Bio-markers & Prevention, 2011)

No form of birth control is without risk, but a study found breast cancer to be 65 percent greater among black women using oral contraceptives. Be sure to talk with your gynecologist about these risks before starting a birth control regimen to make sure you’re not putting your overall health at risk when taking control of your reproductive life.

Fact #10: Social support from family and friends is important during diagnosis and survival stages. (Cancer Nursing, Nov/Dec 2008)

A number of life stressors such as urban living environments, financial difficulties, social disruptions, work-related problems, body image insecurities, and fear of recurrence affect women’s quality of life following diagnosis and treatment. Support from loved ones was found to have a meaningful impact on black women’s ability to cope with breast cancer, as did avoiding negative people, developing a positive attitude, and having the will to live

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