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Black Women and Breast Cancer

Surviving Breast Cancer through Early Detection and Diagnosis

The Issue

Nothing speaks more clearly to the shocking breast cancer health disparities than the fact that Black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, yet have a higher breast cancer death rate.  Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Black women and in 2010, the CDC reported that breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for Black women aged 45--64 years. What was most alarming in this CDC report was that the breast cancer death rate for women aged 45--64 years was 60% higher for Black women than white women (56.8 and 35.6 deaths per 100,000, respectively).  (CDC: National Vital Statistics System:

Why this is important for Black women

The growing breast cancer disparities that exist between Black women and white women are alarming. Although the overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is lower for Black women compared with white women, the death rates are higher.  In 2010, the CDC reported that breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for Black women aged 45--64 years. What was most alarming in this CDC report was that the breast cancer death rate for women aged 45--64 years was 60% higher for Black women than white women (56.8 and 35.6 deaths per 100,000, respectively).  (CDC: National Vital Statistics System: It is important to note that Black women also have a lower 5 year survival rate at 77% compared to that of 90% for white women. Contrary to prevailing beliefs, younger Black women up to age 44 have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women, (U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2006 Incidence and Mortality

What Black women need to know?

Breast cancer tends to appear in Black women at a younger age and in more advanced forms. In fact, Black women are two times more likely to develop triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease which has fewer effective treatment options. Triple-negative breast cancers tend to grow and spread more quickly than most other types of breast cancer. We also are known to have denser breast, one of the strongest predictors of risk for breast cancer and also is a known factor limiting the sensitivity of a screening mammogram.  Mammograms of breasts with higher density have been described as harder to read and interpret than those of less dense breasts.  A small cancer can be concealed by dense breast tissue or by the overlap of normal breast structures.

Many women with early breast cancer have no symptoms.  That is why it is so crucial to get screened before symptoms have a chance to appear.   However, the most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. For this reason, it is important that you have any new breast mass or lump checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.

Other signs may include:

  • Swelling of all or part of the breast
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Pain in the breast or nipple
  • Thickening of the nipple or breast
  • Discharge other than breast milk


What the Imperative is doing

At the Black Women’s Health Imperative, we know that Black women have not benefited from the advances in breast cancer research and new technologies. It is our mission to raise questions, seek understanding, and call attention to what is happening to Black women.

Through our advocacy, policy and national and community-based initiatives, we are working to make eliminating breast cancer disparities among young Black women a public health priority. We do this by:

  • Educating women on the importance of early detection and quick diagnosis
  • Promoting routine breast self-exam (BSE) and clinical breast exam (CBE)
  • Advocating for screening guidelines that are responsive to the needs of Black women
  • Advocating for increased access to new screening tools and quality diagnosis and treatment services
  • Advocating and supporting policies and practices that call for early education and screening among younger women
    • Building leadership in communities to address breast health disparities
    • Engaging women across the country through surveys and focus groups; and listening to the issues and concerns of Black women related to breast cancer
    • Engaging researchers, clinicians, educators and survivors in ongoing dialogue to identify strategies for reducing breast health disparities
    • Working collectively in coalitions at the national and local levels to raise awareness of breast cancer issues for Black women
    • Supporting community organizations in identifying and implementing effective interventions for reducing breast cancer disparities


What Black Women Can Do: Detect. Diagnose. Survive

Early detection is critically important, especially for women at higher risk. For Black women who have been diagnosed at the earliest stage of breast cancer when the tumor is small and localized, early diagnosis can make a difference.

For most of us, early detection and diagnosis are attainable with a few easy steps:

  1. Have your provider show you how to perform monthly breast self-examination (BSE) and perform it faithfully at the same time each month.
  2. See your provider for a clinical breast examination (CBE) at least once a year. 
  3. Have regular mammograms. Since breast density is one of the strongest risk factors for Black women developing breast cancer, insist on digital mammography or some of the newer more advanced technologies that help detect tumors
  4. Learn more about what the Imperative is doing to make breast cancer disparities a priority through our national campaign to end breast cancer disparities, Moving Beyond Pink and sign up for becoming an advocate in your organization and community. 

Breast Cancer News

Published Friday, April 15, 2011
FRIDAY, April 15 (HealthDay News) -- Is estrogen breast cancer's friend or foe? A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which analyzed data from the massive Women's Health Initiative, suggested the latter when it found a reduced risk of breast cancer in women who had been on short-term estrogen therapy. This seemed to contradict more»
Published Monday, March 28, 2011
From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I’m Ira Dreyfuss with HHS HealthBeat. Triple-negative breast cancer lacks three important targets for treatment, and often develops faster than other forms of cancer. And a study indicates that obese women are at higher risk of it. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Amanda more»
Published Monday, November 15, 2010
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved Halaven (eribulin mesylate) to treat patients with metastatic breast cancer who have received at least two prior chemotherapy regimens for late-stage disease. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer related death among women, according to the National Cancer Institute. This year, an estimated more»
Published Monday, October 25, 2010
In an effort to support National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The South Los Angeles Report visited and listened to stories from women affected by the disease. more»
Published Sunday, October 24, 2010
A study published in the Nov 2010 issue of Cancer Causes and Control suggests that drinking tea or coffee may not reduce risk of breast cancer among African-American women. The study led by Boggs D.A. and colleagues from Boston University in Boston Massachusetts found no association between drinking tea and coffee and reduced risk of breast cancer in black more»
Published Monday, October 4, 2010
Race and ethnicity appeared to affect diagnostic delay more than insurance status for women with breast abnormalities, as revealed by data presented at the Third American Association for Cancer Research Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities, held Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2010 more»
Published Monday, March 29, 2010
NEW YORK - Patents on genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer are invalid, ruled a New York federal court today. The precedent-setting ruling marks the first time a court has found patents on genes unlawful and calls into question the validity of patents now held on approximately 2,000 human genes. The ruling follows a lawsuit brought by more»
Published Sunday, March 28, 2010
CBS) Nicole Sudler was a 28-year-old single mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "I was shocked," she said. "And I was very, very afraid." Sudler had one of the deadliest and most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Some researchers are calling it "triple negative." "It kind of made me feel like 'Oh, God, my life is going to be over.' You more»
Published Sunday, March 28, 2010
Lifestyle, age and weight have all been considered as risk factors for breast cancer. Now a study published in the open access journal Breast Cancer Research has found that even taking these factors into consideration, black women face three times the risk of developing an aggressive 'triple negative tumour' compared to women of other racial backgrounds. more»
Published Sunday, March 28, 2010
Black women living in Chicago are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women in the city, according to a study released on Tuesday by the Sinai Urban Health Institute, the Chicago Tribune reports (Peres et al., Chicago Tribune, 10/18). SUHI Director Steve Whitman and colleagues examined data from the Illinois State Cancer Registry, the state more»