In some circles, October is known as “Pink-tober” because so many companies and organizations promote their products and services with a pink ribbon, the iconic symbol of breast cancer awareness.
But maybe there should be a black border around the pink ribbon to draw attention to the disparities for Black women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Across the country and all demographic groups, breast cancer deaths have dropped, thanks to earlier detection. But women of color remain at higher risk for fatal outcomes.
“In this country, Black women with breast cancer have a 40 percent higher death rate than White women,” said Dr. Abigail Miller, chief medical officer at Minnesota-based United Health Care. “These are alarming statistics. Breast cancer is more treatable and curable but not everyone is benefiting.”
Among American women, lung and bronchus cancers at the most deadly, followed by breast cancer, colon and rectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and ovarian cancer.
Here again, there are disparities.
“Among Hispanic women, breast cancer is the number one cancer death,” Dr. Miller said. “For all of our awareness, breast cancer is very much a risk to women’s health. We should raise awareness that we haven’t reached equitable outcomes, especially among women of color.”
Dr. Miller said that women who feel a lump in the breast or the armpit during a self-exam should contact their doctor right away. Other symptoms that should prompt a woman to reach out to her provider include changes in the skin over the breast—redness, flakiness, thickening skin— and changes in the nipple.
Women are encouraged to talk to their doctors or healthcare providers about breast health. Most women are encouraged to begin mammograms at age 50, but women with certain symptoms or a family history of breast cancer often begin screening mammograms or other imaging tests at age 40.
“Mammograms can detect early signs and changes sometimes 30 years before a lump could be felt,” she said.
Dr. Miller said that cost should not prevent a woman from seeking mammograms.
“It’s important to know that under the Affordable Care Act, (also known as Obamacare) most health plans must cover mammograms. It’s part of the preventative benefits that are typically free.”
Treatment for breast cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. New advances include immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, and hormone therapy that helps slow cancer growth.
Dr. Miller said that regular exercise, a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking can all be protective factors that might lower a woman’s risk and prevent her from getting a breast cancer diagnosis.
“You don’t have to look far to find someone you know and cherish who has had their life impacted by breast cancer,” she said. “October is a good time to be reminded to get that mammogram.”
Sage offers free breast cancer screenings at participating sites for Minnesotans who qualify.
For info about mammogram resources, visit www.breastcancergaps.org/how-to.