Know Your Girls: Steps to reduce disproportionate breast cancer deaths among Black women

National Cancer Institute/MGN

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women in the United States. In fact, in the United States a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes, and one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. 

Black women are typically diagnosed at a younger age and diagnosed at a later stage of illness compared to White women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer. It is the second-leading cause of cancer death among Black women.

What is breast cancer? 

Breast cancer is a disease when cells in the breast grow uncontrollably. If the cells continue to grow, they spread into other parts of the body. The unchecked cell group interferes with the function of the organ. Without successful treatment, breast cancer is life-threatening. 

Breast cancer affects all ethnic groups and both women and men. According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors associated with breast cancer include being a woman, growing older, a personal history of breast cancer, a family history of breast cancer, inherited genes that increase cancer risk, radiation exposure, beginning your period at a younger age, early menopause, having your first child after 30 or never being pregnant, drinking alcohol, and postmenopausal hormone therapy. 

Do you know your risk factors? Have you discussed these risk factors with your physician?

Types of breast cancer common in Black women

 Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with a “triple-negative” type of breast cancer rather than estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer that is the most treatable form. Estrogen is a hormone that plays an important role in women’s normal sexual and reproductive development. Triple negative cancer means the cancer cells do not have receptors (signal sites) for estrogen and progesterone hormones or by the HER2 protein.

What can Black women do to change this trend? 

First, give yourself a breast self-examination every month. If you are still menstruating, perform the exam 7-10 days after your menstrual period begins. If you are no longer menstruating, then select a date on the calendar to perform your examination on that day every month. 

Look for any changes in your breast tissue such as size, new lumps, dimpling, changes in the appearance of your nipple or skin on the breast, or a nipple discharge. Until you have established a pattern of self-examination, circle the date on your calendar or set a reminder on your smart phone. 

If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes, follow up with your primary care provider immediately. Black women who report changes in the breast are more likely to be recommended to monitor for further changes. Speak up. 

Although eight out of 10 lumps are benign, early detection is key to survival. If you have had many relatives diagnosed with breast cancer or ovarian cancers or have lost relatives to either cancer, speak with your physician about a blood test to look for genes that increase your risk of breast cancer. 

In addition to self-examination, women over 40 are recommended to have an annual screening examination called a mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breasts. A physician may recommend beginning annual mammograms earlier than age 40. 

The next time you see a pink ribbon, remember that early detection and minimizing risks are key factors in the fight against breast cancer, and share this message with your friends and family. Together we can reduce the number of Black women who die from breast cancer. 

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Dr. Dionne Hart specializes in psychiatry and addiction medicine. She was the inaugural chair of the American Medical Association’s Minority Affairs Section and the first Black woman elected to the Minnesota Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. She is a past Minnesota Psychiatrist of the Year. In 2020, the Minnesota Physician journal named her one of the 100 most influential health care leaders in Minnesota. She is the president of the Minnesota Association of African American Physicians and Region 4 chairperson of the National Medical Association