Black Women and Breast Cancer: The Danger Deepens

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In the past, white women were more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than black women. But no more: the American Cancer Society’s latest statistics reveal that black women are now just as likely to become breast cancer victims as their white sisters. What’s going on? And why is this news particularly bad?

The latest statistics are in. And they’re grim.

Historically, the incidence of breast cancer in white women has been higher than that of black women, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program of the National Cancer Institute, which has been compiling cancer data for over 40 years.

New report shows rise in breast cancer for black women

But a report released last week, compiled by the American Cancer Society using SEER data, reveals that the incidence rate for black women rose sharply between 2008 and 2012 – from 119 to 124 women per 100,000 during the previous reporting period, to 135 per 100,000 in 2012 – equal to that of white women.

Why is this particularly bad news? Because once diagnosed, black women suffer higher mortality rates from breast cancer than white women. They’re often diagnosed at an earlier age, with more aggressive cancers, and endure worse outcomes. Once diagnosed, black women are 42 percent more likely than white women to die of their cancer.

More black women will die of breast cancer

Do the math: more black women are being diagnosed with breast cancer than ever before. Couple that with their higher death rate, and suddenly you have more black families losing mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives.

What’s behind this sudden, deadly uptick?

Possible causes

Researchers can’t be sure, but the study authors point to growing obesity in black women as one probable culprit. It’s long been known that obesity increases the risk of breast cancer, particularly hormone-receptive cancer. The percentage of black women classified as obese has risen from 39 percent in 2002 to 58 percent in 2012.

The percentage of black women classified as obese has risen from 39 percent in 2002 to 58 percent in 2012 – a nearly 50 percent increase. And the percentage of black women being diagnosed with hormone-receptive breast cancer (whose cause is directly linked to being overweight) has likewise risen, leading those commenting on the study to conclude that obesity appears to be responsible, at least in part, for black women’s recent breast cancer risk increase.

In addition, the societal trend of having fewer children; having them at an older age, and nursing for a shorter amount of time all increase breast cancer risk. Researchers propose that all of these factors may have influenced the increased risk black women are currently experiencing.

Black women are more likely to receive a difficult diagnosis: TNBC

And the increased danger for black women goes beyond diagnosis and into treatment. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be diagnosed with a particularly hard-to-treat cancer: triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). Outcomes are much poorer for women with a TNBC diagnosis than for women with simpler hormone-receptive cancer. While a genetic link influencing TNBC hasn’t been found yet, many researchers think it will be.

In addition, black women often have less access to good healthcare, whether due to insurance issues or simply the absence of facilities in the rural and urban areas where many blacks live. So once they’re diagnosed, many aren’t getting the quality of care they need to survive.

What can we do with this new information?

So now that we have the data, what do we do with it? How do we successfully lower the risk of breast cancer for black women?

We can look at all of this as simple statistics. Or we can truly see the toll being taken, then work to understand the reasons behind those numbers. As a society, we need to do everything possible to lower black women’s risk of both breast cancer diagnosis and death: through better access to health care, education, and continued genetic research.

See more helpful articles:

Lifestyle, More Than Genetics, Increases Breast Cancer Risk

African-American Women: More Genetically Susceptible to Breast Cancer

Research Roundup: Breast Cancer in the News

Determining Your Breast Cancer Risk: a HealthCentral Explainer

Sources

DeSantis, Carol. "Breast Cancer Statistics, 2015: Convergence of Incidence Rates between Black and White Women." Http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21320/abstract. October 29, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015.

Parker-Pope, Tara. "A Grim Breast Cancer Milestone for Black Women." October 29, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/a-grim-breast-cancer-milestone-for-black-women/?r=0.Shute, Nancy. "Black Women's Breast Cancer Risk Rises to Equal White Women's." NPR. October 29, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/10/29/452650557/black-womens-breast-cancer-risk-rises-to-equal-white-womens. Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author_ PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.