As we come to the close of another October Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the African American Health Coalition continues to sound the alarm about the disproportionately high rates of death for African American women from breast cancer. Recent research reveals that African American women are still 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than Caucasian women.
Breast cancer is a very serious health threat. One in eight women living in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women this year, and nearly 40,610 will die from this disease. Surprisingly, African American women will bear the brunt of these unfortunate deaths, even though they have a lower chance of getting the disease.
This worrisome disparity appears to be due to a number of factors, including an increased risk of a very aggressive breast cancer subtype known as Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). This form of breast cancer tends to be more common in younger women, African Americans, and those with the BRCA 1 gene mutation. TNBC also has less treatment options, and a poorer survival prognosis than other types of breast cancer.
The month of October provides an opportunity for organizations to educate women about breast cancer. However, while this annual campaign is worthwhile and important, breast cancer awareness must not be limited to one month each year. For the sake of women’s health, especially African American women, it must be an ongoing effort every day of the year.
The African American Health Coalition continues to encourage women to get screened for breast cancer. Early detection saves lives, as screenings can identify cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable. National guidelines recommend women start their annual mammography screenings between the ages of 40 and 50. ACS guidelines for women at average risk are: women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year; women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year; women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. However, even though these screening guidelines work for many women, they can come too late to identify more aggressive forms of breast cancer, like TNBC, which tend to affect women before the age of 40.
So, what else can women do?
Women must be diligent in paying attention to their bodies and their health. Self-awareness is critical. It is important that women take the time to:
- Know their family history of breast cancer and inform their doctors. Family history increases the risk of getting breast cancer and could warrant getting screened earlier than age 40.
- Know their personal risk factors for breast cancer. Breast cancer incidence has been linked to smoking, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and alcohol consumption. Take steps to reduce risk and talk to a doctor about any personal concerns.
- Know what is normal for them. Breast cancer has many symptoms other than finding a lump. For example, swelling of all or part of a breast, unusual discharge, or breast pain. It is important to know your body. If something does not look or feel right, don’t delay, talk to a doctor about it.
- Know who to call. If they do not have a doctor or someone to talk to about breast cancer screenings, contact the Cancer Services Program of Monroe County (CSP-MC). CSP-MC can answer questions about breast cancer screenings, make referrals to licensed healthcare providers and pay for screenings and follow-up services if insurance or money is a barrier to getting screened.
Breast cancer cannot be prevented, but there are a number of things women can do to reduce their risk. The African American Health Coalition continues to urge women to take those steps.
Candice Lucas, Ed.D, MBA, is director of the Cancer Services Program of Monroe County and community health services at the URMC Center for Community Health. She is also chair of the FR=EE Race and Health Disparities Workgroup and the chair of the African American Health Coalition. Her research is in breast cancer disparities among African American women.
Karen Reifenstein, Ph.D., RN, is currently at the University of Rochester in the School of Nursing as an assistant professor of clinical nursing, education coordinator in the Center for Lifelong Learning, professional career coach in the Center for Academic and Professional Success and faculty diversity officer. Her research interest is breast cancer among African American women and health disparities among minority populations.
The African American Health Coalition, convened by Finger Lakes Health System Agency, is composed of representatives from community-based organizations, health professionals and residents. It is focused on mobilizing the community to address health disparities, and improve the health status of African Americans residing in Monroe County and the surrounding Finger Lakes region.