Understanding Differences in Survival Rates for Black and White Breast Cancer Patients

Patient Expert

Although black women have a lower incidence of breast cancer than white women, their mortality rate is higher. Researchers wanting to understand this disparity often look at access to medical care to explain the difference, but at least part of the problem is that black women are more likely to have more aggressive forms of breast cancer.

To understand these genetic differences, scientists are conducting a large review of patient records and materials. Another report has identified one group of black women whose survival is now equal to that for white women, perhaps in part from outreach work in the black community. The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations involves investigators from different institutions who will compare records and biospecimens from 20,000 black women with breast cancer with 20,000 black women without breast cancer. Researchers will also compare records of white and black women with breast cancer and pull together information from 18 earlier studies.

This is the “largest study ever to investigate how genetic and biological factors contribute to breast cancer risk among black women,” according to a news release from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is funding the $12 million+ research project through a grant with the National Cancer Institute, which is a part of the NIH, as well as previous investments.

“This effort is about making sure that all Americans — no matter their background —reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine. The exciting new approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment ring hollow unless we can effectively narrow the gap of cancer disparities, and this new research initiative will help us do that,” Douglas R. Lowy, M.D., acting director of NCI, said in the release.

Scientists already know that black women have twice the rate of triple negative breast cancer than white women and higher rates of inflammatory breast cancer — both aggressive forms of the disease. Examining the genomes of the study participants should help scientists understand inherited genetic factors affecting breast cancer.

“I’m hopeful about where this new research can take us, not only in addressing the unique breast cancer profiles of African-American women, but also in learning more about the origin of cancer disparities,” Dr. Lowy said.

An October 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides some hope for reducing the mortality disparity. While death rates continue to be higher for black women over 50, the death rate for white and black women under 50 decreased at the same rate between 2010 and 2014. This finding suggests that better health education and access to medical treatment can reduce deaths among African-Americans.

An example of outreach in the black community is the work of Sheila M. McGlown, who was featured in the October issue of The Atlanta Black Star explaining the importance of African-Americans signing up for the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project. This project uses patient surveys and saliva samples to find out why some breast cancers metastasize. McGlown, a metastatic breast cancer patient, encourages breast cancer patients to participate in life-saving research. In the news article, she explains that the current lower survival rates for black women is the reason they need to be especially involved.

Sometimes a specific group has a poorer outcome because of inherited factors, but when a group dies at a higher rate because they don’t have equal access to medical care, action must be taken. The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations will help scientists understand the complex reasons why we currently see differences in death rates between white and black women.

In the meantime, providing the best education and medical care to every citizen is vital.

See More Helpful Articles:

Mortality Disparity in Breast Cancer: Everyone Deserves Access to the Best Treatment

It’s the Kind that Black Women Get: IBC and the African-American Community

“Count Me In”: The Metastatic Breast Cancer Project

Patient-Driven Research: You Have the Answers!

Phyllis Johnson is an inflammatory breast cancer survivor who serves on the Board of Directors for the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the oldest 501(3)(c) organization focused on research for IBC. She is a list monitor for an online support group at www.ibcsupport.org. She stays current on cancer information through attendance at conferences such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Project LEAD® Institute. A retired teacher, she has been writing about cancer issues at HealthCentral since 2007.