What Black Women Need to Know about Breast Cancer: Disease in Younger African-American Women Is Likely to Be More Aggressive

By Kinnon, Joy Bennett | Ebony, October 2006 | Go to article overview

What Black Women Need to Know about Breast Cancer: Disease in Younger African-American Women Is Likely to Be More Aggressive


Kinnon, Joy Bennett, Ebony


LORIE Williams almost become a breast cancer statistic. But she turned the tables on the statistics, not only surviving an aggressive form of the disease, but also participating in a major North Carolina study that identified a virulent breast cancer tumor most common in young Black women.

Williams of Holly Springs, N.C., had no family history of breast cancer, and if she had not been vigilant in performing self-breast exams monthly--she might not be here today. She discovered a lump in her breast in August 2005 when she was just 29 years old. At that time she had just begun a new job working in a hospital newborn nursery as a secretary-technician. The married mother of a 6-year-old epileptic son, she was very concerned about her family. "The first thing I thought about when they gave me the diagnosis was, 'Who will take care of my son?' My husband can't do this by himself. My son was my motivation; I had to keep going." She went through eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in January. Ironically, she had to delay the start of radiation due to the death of her 49-year-old father from throat cancer. She completed radiation in May. "You have to have early detection," she says today. "It has already beaten you if you don't have early detection."

Williams has become an outspoken advocate for monthly self-breast exams and early mammograms. "You know your body better than any body, and if somebody tells you that you are too young to have a lump and that it's probably just fibrous tissue, you tell them you want a biopsy," she says forcefully. "That's not acceptable, and this study I participated in is a good study; and it's something my Sisters need to know"

Breast cancer in young Black women is aggressive and deadly, and for decades doctors and researchers have wondered why. Although African-Americans have fewer breast cancers than White women, their mortality is worse. In fact, Black women under age 50 have a 77 percent higher mortality rate from breast cancer than White women of the same age. For Black women in this age bracket, the breast cancer death rate is 11 per 100,000, compared with only 6.3 in White women.

Access to health care, environmental exposures, and less frequent use of mammography screenings have all been the traditional explanations to our lower survival rates, but the results of a study led by scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill schools of public health and medicine and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer add a genetic part to this equation, offering some new insight into the issue.

"The present study adds an important piece to a large puzzle" says senior study author Dr. Robert M. Millikan, associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC School of Public Health. "Previous studies showed that many breast tumors in younger African-American women are very fast-growing and hard to treat. We found something new: Younger African-American breast cancer patients show a higher frequency of one of the aggressive subtypes of breast cancer called 'basal-like;" says the principal investigator of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), one of the largest African-American breast cancer databases in the United States.

Younger, premenopausal Black women, when victimized by breast cancer, are more than twice as likely as older women, Black or White, to get an aggressive breast cancer subtype called "basal-like" the study found. Thirty-nine percent had the more aggressive and dangerous "basal-like" subtype as compared with only 14 percent of older, postmenopausal Black women, and 16 percent of White women of any age. The study found that young Black women are also much less likely to get the least aggressive type. A report of the research appears in the June 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This new data does not immediately affect treatment options because there is no treatment that specifically attacks basal-like cancer. …

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