African-American Women & Breast Cancer: What You Need To Know

The conundrum: While Caucasian women are more likely to develop breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to die from the disease. Medical researchers want some answers about that, because breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women today.

“Overall, across the board, breast cancer survival rates continue to improve every single year,” says Erin Macrae, MD, a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at the OSUCCC – James. “Magnificent strides are made daily in research, discoveries, treatment options and survival rates. But while white women have the highest diagnosis rate compared with other populations, black women are actually more likely to die from the disease.”

Why? Medical research varies and is ongoing, but scientists have uncovered a number of likely culprits, and, according to Macrae, recent studies have been pointing to timing of diagnosis and tumor biology.

Without early screening and diagnosis, African-American women are often diagnosed after the disease has significantly progressed. Additionally, black women are more likely to have what’s called triple-negative breast cancer – an aggressive, difficult-to-treat variation of the disease because of the biological makeup of the tumor itself. In other words, they may actually be sicker to start with because of aggressively changing genes and especially vicious cancer cells.

That means African-American women (and all women, for that matter) need to take steps to guard their health and reduce their breast cancer risk.

“Being a woman, regardless of skin color, regardless of genetic makeup, automatically puts us at risk for breast cancer,” says Macrae. “But there are definitely steps we can take to reduce risks and improve survival rates.

“Early detection is so important,” she continues. “Annual mammograms are a must. Start them at age 40 unless you have a family history of breast cancer, in which case you need to start earlier. The sooner we detect something, the sooner we can target it and begin personalized treatment, which vastly improves cure rates.”

Other ways to reduce risk include a good, healthful diet (low in saturated fats, refined sugars and processed foods but rich in protein, vegetables and fruits), which is an excellent shield to help ward off any disease, says Macrae. Equally important? Regular exercise, minimal alcohol consumption, and regular checkups with your primary care doctor.

Combine that lifestyle approach with exciting new cancer research, and the outlook becomes bright again. “It’s important,” Macrae says, “to go where there are true experts in the field. Cancer doctors who specialize and sub-specialize in just one form of cancer – that’s all they do, all day, every day, which means they have that in-depth medical knowledge and expertise to provide the best possible solutions and care for each patient.

“Additionally,” she says, “we have multiple breast cancer clinical trials available right now at The James. Beginning with early detection through survivorship, we have so many ways women can get involved with new and exciting treatments and therapies.”