This is not hyperbole: Breast cancer is killing us.
Though black women get breast cancer at a slightly lower rate than white women, we are 42 percent more likely to die of the disease than them. That is an astounding number and indicative of a variety of factors, many reflecting racial disparities.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women, and an estimated 33,840 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2019. An estimated 6,540 deaths from breast cancer are expected to occur among black women in 2019.
No women needs to die from breast cancer. It can’t be prevented, but early stage breast cancer (meaning it has been localized within the breast) has a 99 percent 5-year survival rate. Note the inequity here: The overall 5-year survival rate for a breast cancer diagnosis is 81 percent for black women versus 91 percent for white women. And, 54 percent of breast cancers in black women are diagnosed at a local stage, compared to 64 percent in white women.
To add more fuel to the fire, black women younger than age 35 get breast cancer at two times the rate of white women and die from breast cancer three times as often as white women.
So what’s the problem? Why are black women dying unnecessarily?
Breast cancer is killing us at higher rates because:
- Black women are not taking action. While 92 percent of black women agree breast health is important, only 25 percent have recently discussed breast health with their family, friends or colleagues. And, only 17 percent have taken steps to understand their risk for breast cancer.
- Black women lack information about the severity of breast cancer, breast cancer symptoms and the need for screening.
- Black women take care of others at the expense of their own health.
- Black women are often at a more advanced stage upon detection.
- Black women may not have access to health care or health insurance so may have lower frequency of and longer intervals between mammograms.
- Because they may not have health insurance, black women may not follow up on abnormal mammogram results because they can’t afford the diagnostic testing.
- Black women often don’t have access to the same prompt high-quality treatment that white women have. They express that they often feel disrespected by physicians and staff.
- Black women face logistical barriers to accessing care, such as transportation issues or not being able to miss work or arrange for child care.
- Black women fear a cancer diagnosis.
- Black women have the highest odds (two times more likely) of getting triple negative breast cancer, a kind of breast cancer that often is aggressive and comes back after treatment. It has the highest mortality rate and is the only breast cancer sub-type that does not have a therapy to prevent recurrence. Note that younger women and women diagnosed at later stages are more likely to get triple negative breast cancer.
We must stop the silence!
Early detection saves lives. Black women of all ages need to check their breasts monthly. We need to know what our “normal” feels like so if there is some abnormality, immediate action can be taken.
Black women need to understand the severity of this health crisis. We need to talk about our health, share our family histories and educate all of the women in our lives.
The ongoing conversations in this country around access to affordable health insurance must include acknowledgement and action regarding the inequities for black women.
Black women need to demand the attention of health-care professionals.
We at Sisters Network, Inc., a sisterhood of survivors and thrivers, will continue to fight like girls and be the voice of black women. We are committed to increasing local and national attention to the devastating impact breast cancer has in the African American community. We are working diligently to reduce the mortality rates of breast cancer among black women by generating awareness, garnering attention, providing access to information and resources, and supporting research efforts in the ecosystem.