Breast cancer disparities for African American women

No woman should have a difficult time accessing resources or help during her battle with breast cancer, but unfortunately some do. To mark Black History month, this month’s focus is on the challenges that African American women face when it comes to breast cancer and what can be done to help towards the goal of healthcare equity.

There are a number of disparities that African American women face when it comes to breast cancer. A disparity means a lack of similarity or equality. Healthcare disparities, specifically breast cancer disparities, means a difference in breast cancer outcomes among specific groups.

On a national level, African American women face a number of healthcare disparities. They tend to be diagnosed at a younger age than white women. The average age for diagnosis for black women is 60, while the average age for white women is 63.

In addition to being diagnosed at a younger age, African Americans are also typically diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer such as triple negative breast cancer. Once diagnosed with these aggressive forms of cancer, black women are faced with limited and costly treatment options and tend to have a poor prognosis.

One of the most alarming disparities is that survival rates from breast cancer among black women remain lower than for Caucasian women. African American women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer due to contributing causes such as limited access to follow-up care after an abnormal mammogram, lack of health insurance, difference in reproductive factors such as lower rates of breastfeeding, younger average age at childbirth, and obesity before menopause. There are many possible reasons for this difference in survival rates including difference in tumor biology and tumor genetics, risk factors, barriers to quality health care access which could include a lack of health insurance, and health behaviors including not completing treatment.

African American women also face disparities on a local level. These mainly include high rates of being uninsured and limited access to healthcare services and treatments. One study found that the places that served mostly minority women were more likely to be public institutions, less likely to have digital mammography and less likely to have dedicated breast imaging specialists reading the films. All of these things can lead to poor quality care.

At Susan G Komen we believe that these disparities are unacceptable and want to be active in tackling these issues by taking steps towards achieving healthcare equity.

In December 2015, Komen received a grant from the Fund II Foundation to begin bridging the gap in access to high-quality breast health care in the African American community. Susan G Komen is committed to the goal of reducing African American breast cancer disparities by 25%, starting in the 10 US metropolitan areas that have the highest late-stage diagnosis rates and death rate disparities between black and white women.  These cities are:  Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Memphis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Virginia Beach/Tidewater, and Washington DC.  Through a project called the “African American Health Equity Initiative,” Komen Headquarters, Affiliates, key community leaders and stakeholders representing these 10 cities, are partnering to address breast health disparities in each respective community.

Through the “Speak Truth to Power Conferences,” Komen has convened African American community health advocates to learn about the role of public policy and advocacy in reducing breast cancer disparities and the importance of engaging in these efforts. After the training, attendees participate in the Komen Advocacy Summit, along with hundreds of other Komen advocates with legislative visits to their members of Congress at Capitol Hill.

From targeted outreach programs like “Worship in Pink,” where breast health education is offered at African American churches, to focusing on community grant funding to provide mammograms, diagnostics, treatment and patient navigation programs specifically to the black community, Komen is committed to addressing this breast cancer disparity on national, regional and local levels.

All African American women – and all women and men – should take charge of their breast health.  Some of the disparities mentioned are what prompted Susan G Komen to partner with the Ad Council to create the Know Your Girls campaign.  Know Your Girls is designed to empower black women to treat their breasts with the same attentiveness and understanding they share with the women in their lives. Some action steps encouraged within the campaign are to learn your risk, know your body, and seek screenings. This campaign urges African American women to encourage one another while taking these steps and to make breast health an important topic among friends and family. To learn more about the Know Your Girls campaign visit knowyourgirls.org.