10 Facts About Black Women & Breast Cancer You Should Know

by Tsebiyah Mishael

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I’m sure you’re seeing pink everywhere. Interestingly enough, even though Breast Cancer affects black women at younger ages and much more aggressive forms appear in those diagnosed, racial disparities in cancer statistics seem to be much less often touched upon. Below are some important facts about breast cancer in relation to black women.  

1. There is no one race or ethnic group that is unaffected by breast cancer. Still, breast cancer is the most common cancer found in black women. It is also the most commonly found cancer in the United States, second to skin cancer. 

2. The risk of dying of breast cancer is higher for black women. Although the overall risk of getting breast cancer is lower for black women than it is for white women, according to the Susan G. Komen foundation, our risk of death is at a staggering 41%, and that has a lot to do with our tendency not to get screened on a regular basis, due to the inequalities in availability of preventative care and treatment. It’s no secret that access to health care is not equally spread in the United States, and this contributes largely to an inability to catch breast cancer in enough time to have a fair shot at beating it. This is especially dangerous because, for some reason, we are twice as likely to develop something called triple negative breast cancer, which grows and spreads more quickly than other types of cancers, so the need to catch it early is twice as great. 

3. There are usually no visible symptoms of breast cancer, which is how it can go undetected for so long (again, this is why it is so important to get screened). The most common sign of breast cancer, however, is a new hard lump or mass found in the breast. It is usually painless and shaped irregularly, but breast cancer can be tender, soft, or rounded. Some less common symptoms include swelling of all or part of the breast, pain in or thickening of the nipple or breast, and discharge other than breast milk. That being said, don’t wait for possible symptoms to appear before you schedule a screening! It should be a routine, preventative step that you always take.

4. Breast cancer is not just an older women’s issue. We think of breast cancer as an older woman’s problem, but the truth is, the incidence of breast cancer is higher for black women under age 44 than it is for white women. And not only does cancer appear younger in black women, but in more advance forms.  

5. You should get a mammogram once a year. And you should do monthly self-examinations at the same time each month. A doctor can teach you how, and in the meantime, you can check out this nifty step-by-step diagram here.

6. Monthly self-examinations alone are not enough. Less than two-thirds of breast cancers can be discovered by self-examination alone, so we can delight in the fact that it is quite useful to examine yourself every month, rather than having to go to the doctor every month. But (and this is a huge but) that leaves a whole other third of breast cancers that cannot be detected with just your hands in the shower. So while that two-thirds of different breast cancers you can detect early with your hands sounds great, all it takes is one cancer, and leaving a whole third of bases uncovered is too risky. A yearly mammogram is just as crucial. 

7. Breast size doesn’t matter, breast density does. Black women tend to have denser breasts, which can make breast cancer a little more difficult to find. A dense breast tissue can hide a smaller cancer from visibility on a mammogram, for example. 

8. The radiation in a mammography is not enough to hurt you. There is a small amount of radiation used in mammography. But Breastcancer.org assures us that the level of radiation involved in a modern day mammography is so low- “less than one rad per complete study,” to be exact –that a mammogram is completely worth it and that you have nothing to worry about. 

9. We all have lumps in our breasts already. This is why monthly self-examinations are important -they familiarize you with the lumps that are already a part of your breast tissue so that you would know the difference, if you ever were to find something new. The good news is that only 20% of women in the United States who have a lump biopsied (looked at under a microscope) turn out to actually have breast cancer. So while it is imperative that you go to your doctor if you think you have found a lump, find comfort in the fact that a new lump in your breast does not automatically mean you have cancer. 

10. You can lower your risk of diagnosis. 
First, aside from being aware of the stats on breast cancer specifically for black women, you’ve also got to get to know your own personal risk factors. Has anyone in your family ever been diagnosed with breast cancer? 

Exercise regularly, because weight gain and obesity, especially after menopause, is a huge factor in the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. This is not, however, an excuse to wait until you’re on the brink of menopause to find a way to stay physically active. The earlier you start, the easier it is. 

Also, quit smoking. There is a lot of research that shows that if you begin smoking earlier in life, your risk of diagnosis is higher. Skip out on the pack and pocket those 13 bucks. Your breasts (and your lungs, while we’re at it) will thank you later. 

Minimize your alcohol intake- I know, I know, I was disappointed too, but alcohol can increase estrogen levels, along with other hormones that are associated with and contribute to the risk of a cancer diagnosis. Try cutting back on the amount of drinks you have per week. 

Despite how overwhelming the statistics on black women and breast cancer can be, it is important to remember that there is no use in stressing out over it. The best (and only) things you can do are to stay physically active, treat your body healthily, and get screened regularly for breast cancer, so that with every passing month and year you’ll be sure that you don’t have it. With the availability of Obamacare, breast cancer screenings have become much more accessible for black women. And simultaneously organizations like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have programs that strive to make free or low cost screenings available to women who otherwise have limited or no access. See if you qualify and to search for testing centers near you. 

For more information on breast cancer in black women, you can follow the links below:

Black Women’s Health Initiative

The Susan G. Komen Foundation

Sisters Network, INC. 

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Tsebiyah Mishael is a New York native and a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she fed her passions for writing, theater, and history. You can keep up with Tsebiyah on twitter by following @tsmish!

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