‘Know Your Girls’ Spokesperson Dr. Robina Smith Explains Why Black Women Need To Be Extra Vigilant About Checking For Breast Cancer
National Cancer Survivor’s Day just passed June 2nd, but the urgency to ensure Black women are aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer is an ongoing challenge/ Advocates like Dr. Robina Smith, help to spread awareness through her partnership with Ad Council’s, “Know Your Girls” campaign. Dr. Smith is a fellowship-trained breast cancer surgeon with over ten years of experience in the field. We spoke to Smith about how Black women can become more aware of their risks, so we can decrease the disproportionately high mortality rates for Black women with breast cancer.
MN: In the past few years, we have been made aware of how breast cancer disproportionately kills Black women even though our white counterparts are more frequently diagnosed. Why is that the case that Black women are disproportionately affected?
Dr. Smith: Breast Cancer affects all populations in the world. However, Black women are disproportionately affected with higher breast cancer deaths, due to advanced stages when discovered (diagnosis), younger age when identified, poor access to and receipt of quality healthcare, more aggressive types of breast cancer (Triple Negative), refusal to adhere to the treatment plans outlined by the Oncologist and higher uncontrolled or poorly controlled personal medical problems (such as Diabetes and High Blood Pressure). All of these factors significantly affect the survival rates of breast cancer and are prevalent in minority women with Black women being the most severely affected.
MN: What can Black women do in order to help ourselves and each other bridge the survival gap?
Dr. Smith: Since there isn’t any way to prevent breast cancer from forming, for women who are at average to moderate risk, the best way Black women can help themselves and each other is to become active participants in their own health breast health and screening process. Adhere to the screening recommendations […] (annual Mammograms at the appropriate age determined by your doctor, annual clinical breast exams with your doctor and routine evaluation of your own breast for any new or changing findings). Know your family history and ask if there are any cancers on both your mother and father’s side of the family.
MN: What made you enter this field of work? Are there any women in your life who have gone through this?
Dr. Smith: Black women have the highest mortality rates of any race – even in the early, potentially curable stages. Being a black woman, I wanted to make a difference in my community and within my race because it is personal to me.
MN: Who is considered high risk?
Dr. Smith: Risks for developing breast cancer are based on the knowledge and evidence that there are controllable and uncontrollable factors which can cause mutations or changes in the normal cells that make up the structures of the breast[…]. These changes or mutations in the cells within the breast are called cancerous changes or carcinoma.
The two biggest uncontrollable risk factors for developing these cancerous changes are 1) being a woman with breasts and 2) getting older.
Breast cancer originates in the breast and the longer we live we are exposed to different controllable risk factors such as chemicals, radiation, hormones, medications, alcohol, smoking etc. The average lifetime risk for any woman to develop breast cancer in her lifetime is 10-12% depending on ethnicity. If you are a woman and you live to an average lifespan to 85 this is your basic risk.
Some women will have other risk factors that can increase their lifetime risk to 15-40%, such as a personal history or breast cancer, years of exposure to estrogen for postmenopausal women, high risk lesion (precancerous) within the breast seen on biopsies, or positive family history of two or more first-degree relatives [like a parent] with premenopausal breast cancer.
Women who are considered to be high risk for breast cancer have an increased lifetime risk of at least 60-80% such as those with Inherited Genetic Mutations (BRCA1/2, PALB, TP53) passed down through the family with a strong history of cancers on the mother and/or father’s side.
MN: We know a lot of Black women are victims of medical neglect. If you have a lump that your doctor isn’t taking seriously, what should you do?
Dr. Smith: Black women must be proactive and be an active participant in their healthcare. It is important to communicate your concerns to your doctor. If he/she isn’t taking your concerns seriously then seek a second opinion from another doctor. If it is necessary, find a different clinic or medical office for that second opinion.
MN:How can we all be better allies for women who have been recently diagnosed with breast cancer or are undergoing treatment?
Dr. Smith: Help spread the word about breast cancer, the risks associated with the Black women and screening guidelines. Education and awareness about Black women and breast cancer can help change our statistics and our story.
MN: Why was it important for you to get involved with Know Your Girls?
Dr. Smith: The Know Your Girls campaign is a valuable resource to help with the education and awareness that Black women need in order to make changes in their lives and be inspired to take charge of their breast health.