By Marc Hurlbert, Executive Director, Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade
Remarkable progress has been made in breast cancer screening and care in the past twenty years. Survival is improving, surgery can be less invasive in most cases, targeted therapies with fewer side effects are available, and not every breast cancer has to be treated with harsh chemotherapy. However, even with this progress, an Avon Foundation for Women-funded study has found that these advances aren’t available to everyone, particularly to African American women.
The Racial Disparity in Breast Cancer Mortality Study, conducted by Sinai Urban Health Institute, analyzed the breast cancer mortality rate in black and white women in twenty-four of the largest U.S. cities and found that nearly five black women die needlessly per day from breast cancer in the United States. The study reported that in twenty-one of the twenty-four cities analyzed, black women had higher mortality rates from breast cancer. The researchers concluded the disparity is primarily due to a woman’s access to screening and treatment services. Some cities, like New York City, have several public hospitals offering low-cost or free screenings throughout all five boroughs; other cities, like Chicago, which has a much higher disparity, have fewer public hospitals, making it much more difficult for women to get mammograms and treatment.
The study also showed that black women are not dying from breast cancer any more than they were in the past—it’s that white women are dying less. For the last twenty years, the breast cancer mortality rate for black women has remained the same, but the rate for white women has been cut nearly in half because they have access to new advances in diagnosis and treatment. Although genetic factors likely cause about 10 percent of the disparity (black women get more aggressive forms of the disease, such as triple-negative breast cancer), 90 percent of the disparity is due to societal issues such as poverty, racial inequities, and a lack of culturally relevant education about breast cancer.
This disparity is not just an issue for the African American community; it’s an issue for society as a whole. All women, regardless of race, must be educated about the importance of breast health screening, have access to screening regardless of their ability to pay, and must receive high-quality treatment in a timely manner and complete their recommended therapy.