Why Aren’t More Black Women Walking To End Breast Cancer?

May 8, 2015  |  

She wasn’t supposed to die, and certainly not from breast cancer. A New Yorker through and through, my late grandmother was a survivor in the truest sense of the word. Though she was blind for more than half of her adult life, she was determined to maintain her independence and lived on her own, one of many remarkable feats that spanned her more than 70 years on this earth. So when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I just knew she would somehow cheat death and live to tell us all how to do the same. But God had other plans. Grandma passed within months of her diagnosis.

Powerless, grief-stricken and angry, I decided to honor her memory and participated in the AVON 39 Walk To End Breast Cancer a year and a half later. I trained for months, and thanks to donations from family, friends, and perfect strangers, I raised $1,800, the amount required to participate in the two-day, 39-mile walk. These funds supported research, aided women and families battling breast cancer, and helped to provide women with mammograms. All life-saving tools aimed at fighting the beast that is breast cancer.

When I showed up in Santa Barbara, California the morning of the walk, calming beach in the background, collective, loving spirit in the air, I was struck by the lack of diversity in the sea of faces and pink paraphernalia. Yes, Santa Barbara is predominantly white, but walkers from throughout the Golden State flock to its streets each September. The AVON 39 Walk sponsors six other walks in bigger cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, where Black populations are substantially larger. Maybe our turn out was and would be more visible there, I thought. Not to mention, there are other well-known and well-attended breast cancer walks, like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (and there are a whopping 31 races going on this month alone around the world). But I wasn’t a part of those walks.

Considering the statistics, I expected to see more women that looked like me, my mom, my aunts, and my late grandma. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African-American women, and yet, we were largely absent in the walk, a fact that supports the following statistic: Breast cancer disproportionately affects Black women in the U.S.

According to Cancer.org, African-American women had a 41% higher breast cancer death rate than white women from the years 2005 to 2009, despite a lower incidence rate. This is complicated by the fact that breast cancer tends to appear in Black women at a younger age, and in more advanced forms. We are twice as likely as our white counterparts to develop triple-negative breast cancer, a very aggressive form of the disease, which currently has very few treatment options. Black women also tend to have denser breasts, a factor that can limit the sensitivity of mammogram screenings and make it difficult to detect cancer. White women have higher rates of breast cancer, but their survival rates are improving at a much faster pace. Where we currently stand, Black women have survival rates on par with white women from the 1970s. This is unacceptable.

The Avon Foundation conducted a study last year to examine the racial disparity in breast cancer mortality rates. It determined that the four key factors that lead to this disparity are “differential access to screening, quality of the screening process, access to treatment, and quality of treatment.” These factors are largely socioeconomic in nature, which means our health is directly related to where we live, to our income, and to our level of education. There are also other factors at play that encourage this racial disparity, like doctors armed with racial biases and our lack of participation in clinical trials, which foster significant medical advancements.

These facts, these alarming statistics, tell us that survival is not in our favor. And while there is no quick fix, survival is certainly in our hands. We as Black women have to take it upon ourselves to educate our mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, friends and neighbors, as well as the men in our lives. We must work to remove the financial barriers, and demand equal and fair access to life-saving care that will make breast cancer a thing of the past. We need to turn up in large numbers to every breast cancer walk. Chances are you know someone who has been affected by breast cancer. Walk for them. Walk so that another woman doesn’t have to. There’s beauty in unity and our proactive participation. Our dollars can help to not only close the disparity gap but find a cure for a cancer that affects millions of women. As I train and raise money for my second AVON 39 Walk this September, I hope to see more Black women walking beside me.  I can’t think of a better way to honor my grandmother. Who would you walk for?

Don’t think it’s worth the effort? Click here to see a breakdown of how far your AVON 39 Walk dollars go.

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