Breast cancer and Black women

Survivors highlight the importance early detection, network of support

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

Debra Stone (l) and Reona Berry
Photo by Charles Hallman

According to the 2011-12 American Cancer Society (ACS) facts and figures, Black women in Minnesota are seven percent less likely than White women to get cancer but 21 percent more likely overall to die from it. Nationwide, the ACS reports that Black women before age 40 have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer and that Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with larger cancer tumors that White women.

“We do have history of cancer in our community that we don’t talk about. And of course when it is diagnosed, what do I do?” asks Reona Berry. Both she and Debra Stone are Minneapolis-based African American Breast Cancer Alliance (AABCA) members. The two breast cancer survivors recently talked to the MSR about their experiences.

Oftentimes Black women, especially if they live in Minnesota, feel alone once they get diagnosed, the survivors say. “People ask, ‘Why did I get breast cancer?’ It’s a disease that attacks our bodies. We don’t know why we get breast cancer,” states Berry.

“As soon as a woman feels any kind of lump…you should check it out,” advises Stone. Both women say too often Black women “wait later [and] get diagnosed” too late to catch the cancer in its early stages.


“Chemotherapy goes through the whole body. We don’t

know what to expect. This is something you have to adjust to.”



Men get breast cancer too, notes the ACS in their report. “They tend to think when they feel a lump or something [unusual], ‘I must’ve pulled a muscle doing hard work or working out,’ believes Stone. “The numbers for men might be one in 1,000 diagnosed but it’s worse for them because they don’t have fatty tissue, and [the cancer] eats through their muscles.”

Berry adds that the aforementioned ACS statistics and other such reports on Black women and cancer too often make generalizations. “The African American experience in regards to breast cancer, and how its diagnosis is handled” is just one of several barriers Black women often face along with fear, including being rejected by their significant other, insurance, or lack of, and socio-economic issues, she believes. “My experience with breast cancer could be so much different from another person’s experience.”

Racism and its societal existence is “the difference between Black women and White women having cancer,” Stone says. “I think that puts a lot of pressure and stress on us. Just on everyday encounters that White people don’t have to deal with because they are the majority and they have the privilege. They don’t have to think about race.”

“Black people have a way of internalizing these things,” concurs Berry. “We’re not treated well at the receptionist desk at the doctor’s office. Some women will take this as [a sign that] they don’t care about them here. Then they leave and wait a long time before they find another doctor, and their disease has progressed. Then they are having worst outcomes later.”

Instead, Berry strongly suggests that if a Black woman needs help in dealing with her health needs, she should find a friend or family member “to be a navigator…helping the woman navigate the system because the system can be confusing.”

Family and friends often don’t fully realize the toll breast cancer can have on the individual, especially the fact that there will be adjustments, which are different for each Black woman. “People have to realize that you had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and you will not be the same,” Berry says. “You are in a new phase of your life after cancer or after any major medical treatment. Chemotherapy goes through the whole body. We don’t know what to expect. This is something you have to adjust to.”

Both women agree that eating healthy and taking care of yourself are important. “You are not going to change the world in eating less fat,” says Berry. “It’s the matter of taking care of ourselves. That means mind, body and spirit.”

Attendance at the AABCA support group meetings can range from 10-30 women. It allows Black women cancer survivors “to have an opportunity to exchange information,” says Berry. “This is a way for us to connect with one another…[and] to tell our stories that’s culturally appropriate.

“Some women come once and never come back…while other women still come [as long as] 15 years later. It’s a drop-in, come in when you need to. They come because they want to be there, and they enjoy the women and want to be there for other women. It’s a way to give back to the community. We [also] have about 150 on our mailing list.

“Surround yourself with the best people in your lives,” Berry continues, “the best medical team that you can, that can support you.”


For more information on AABCA, call 612-225-9632 or 612-925-3675, or visit

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to