Though Black women get breast cancer at a slightly lower incidence rate than white women, Black women are 42% more like to die of breast cancer than white women. 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.
Women do not need 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% five-year survival rate.
Survival rate inequity
Note the inequity here: the overall five-year relative survival rate for breast cancer diagnosed is 81% for Black women vs. 91% for White women. And, 54% of breast cancers in Black women are diagnosed at a local stage, compared to 64% in White women.
To add more fuel to the fire, Black women under 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.
Why high death rates?
So, what’s the problem? Why are Black women dying unnecessarily?
Higher death rates among Black women reflect the following:
Black women are not taking action. While 92% of Black women agree breast health is important, only 25% have recently discussed breast health with their family, friends, or colleagues. And, only 17% 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 to have a lower frequency of 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 are often feel disrespected by physicians and staff.
Black women face logistical barriers to accessing care (such as transportation issues or inability to miss work or arrange for childcare).
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 subtype that does not have a therapy to prevent a recurrence. Note that younger women and women diagnosed at later stages are more likely to get Triple-Negative Breast Cancer.
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 immediate action can be taken if there is some abnormality.
Black women need to understand the severity of this health crisis. We need to be talking about our health, our family histories, and educating all of the women in our lives.
The ongoing conversations in this country around access to affordable health insurance must include acknowledgment and action regarding the inequities for Black women.
Black women need to demand the attention and care of health care professionals.