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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  • reana

    I’m an african american woman who has a family history of breast cancer! It is also common for it to skip a generation also. My grandmother had it, my aunt didn’t but the my cousin passed away at 36. It really depends on how you approach and family history. I have never been to any OBGYN doctor/office suggest not to have a mammogram in their 20’s. That’s just absurd! Know your history and take care of yourself.

    Secondly I read the link and there are different reasons and types of ways to detect breast cancer!

    I found this statement interesting:
    A common practice has been to recommend that a BRCA mutation carrier begin breast cancer screening at age 25. At UCSF’s Cancer Risk Program, where counselors and physicians advise and care for women who carry these cancer risk genes, the recommended screening protocol is a mammogram, alternating with a breast MRI, at six-month intervals. Beattie says she and her colleagues are discussing the possibility of dropping the mammography component for women under 30 or 35. This is based on a program not a reason why not to be screened.

    • Lovelacegeneral

      I am 29 years old and have been fighting with Dr’s for years to check my breast.  I found my first lump at 21 in my left breast.  # Dr’s told me that they would not performa mamm on me because I was only 21.  Since then i have doen my research and have had several mamms performed.  I should not take BC with my history (mom, aunt, grandmother, great aunt, all had breast cancer.  All passed except my aunt by the age of 55)  With me knowing this hidtory they would not, but I am my best advocate.  So, I do not think  that the other person is too far off because it has also happened to me.  Something about dense breast tissue the younger you are so an ultrasound is better on younger women than a mamm. 

  • Old soul

    Thanks @ brande victorian

  • Old soul

    Regardless of age are women under the age of 35 given mammograms?

    • Brande Victorian

      Clinical breast exams in which a healthcare professional feels for lumpsin a woman's breast area play a role in early diagnosis for women under 35. There are some risks associatied with mamograms which is why they aren't recommended for younger women, breast MRI exams may be an option.

  • Old soul

    @Wilma I am actually a 20yr female at one of the finest HBCUs around, do I sound that educated? And how is that hatred, wake up and realizing what’s happening in America.

  • Old soul

    This article was very interesting, but I share a few concerns. I am a twenty year black female with a family history of breast cancer, yet since I am not thirty five years old I can not receive a mammograph. HOw can we desire to diagnose breast cancer in it’s earlier stages when we won’t perform mammograms on younger women? In addition, our “traditional” values are completely rational. Oral contraceptives such as birth control were invented to stop black minorities from reproducing. Its an fear that European people have of being genitically eradicated so they attempt to do “black population control”. So it’s not surprising that birth control is causing cancer as well.

    Stay blessed my queens

    • Wilma

      You are not 20 yrs old. Stop it. Stop spewing hatred also..

  • womenar4

    I knew our statistics were not good but at least there are signs of improvement. I have shared this article on both my personal and fan facebook pages.