Breast Cancer Disproportionately Affects Black Women Like My Mother

When my mother developed breast cancer, I learned intimately about the way the disease disproportionately affects Black people like her. Breast cancer now surpasses lung cancer as a leading cause of death for Black women.

Mother and daughter wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness

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My mother, a Black single mom of three, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer for the first time in 2004. Only in elementary school, I discovered this through finding an informative pamphlet about dealing with the disease in the pocket on the back of her driver’s seat. In hoping to protect her children, who had already lost their grandmother to cancer, she wanted to keep the news to herself for as long as possible.

Through years of treatments, doctor’s appointments, informative panels, events, and more, my family learned that Black women, like my mother, face various and distinct hardships in accessing resources and receiving care for breast cancer. 

As Black patients are disproportionately affected by more aggressive forms of the disease, such as triple-negative breast cancer, quick and effective treatment can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. 

Most recently, breast cancer has surpassed lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in Black women. Black patients are 41% more likely to die from the disease than their white counterparts. Racial disparities in healthcare, like structural and medical racism, barriers to early screening, and lack of health insurance, contribute to the fact that Black patients receive diagnoses at later stages.

Along with fear, a lack of adequate health insurance was one of the main reasons my mother was diagnosed late in stage 3, with doctors telling her that the cancer was almost at stage 4. Financial burden is likely one of the largest factors in determining outcomes of surviving intense diseases.

My mother broke down at the doctor’s office after informing nurses that she had no insurance and was unsure of how she would pay for treatment. Thankfully, she was surrounded by people who cared for her well-being, and a nurse walked her through the process of receiving financial assistance through the Susan G. Komen Foundation. During treatment for the first round of cancer and even after its return, my mother applied for disability and was denied both times; she finally received reimbursement years after being in remission. The diagnosis and impending need for care were devastating, but she was determined to fight in order to be there for her children. 

There are countless factors that contribute to the grim outlook of breast cancer in Black women. In a study conducted at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, researchers found that the spread of breast cancer was more likely to occur in Black women, with 7% of Black women developing distant metastases as opposed to 1% of white participants. However, the potential causes for this disparity are currently unknown. Though the number of participants was small, and the trial is considered preliminary, researchers felt the difference in risk between Black and white women was significant and hope to conduct more studies and testing on a greater scale.

Minor daily occurrences, such as using everyday hair products, may also play a role in increasing the likelihood of breast cancer in Black women. City of Hope, a biomedical treatment and education center, conducted a study that discovered parabens found in personal care and hair products demonstrated damaging effects on breast cancer cells in Black women. Utilized as preservatives in these products, parabens cultivate an environment that is beneficial to the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Lindsey S. Treviño, Ph.D., lead researcher in the study, also noted the lack of data about how parabens increase the risk in Black women, stating that this may be due to the fact that Black women are not commonly chosen to take part in research studies and trials. Consequently, the City of Hope study used cancer cell lines from both Black and white women and found that parabens increased the growth of the cancer cell line in Black women only.

The spread of cancer cells due to parabens was found in both Black and white samples, though a bigger effect was witnessed in the former group. Recently, some organizations have focused efforts on categorizing safe and harmful products to inform the public. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization dedicated to providing data and analysis to promote an overall healthier lifestyle, created a database that provides alternatives to hazardous care products.

EWG found that out of 1,177 beauty and care products, specifically directed towards Black women, 1 out of every 12 products was ranked as significantly hazardous. The most toxic products were hair relaxers, colors, and bleaching products. Potential hazards from the use of ingredients found in these products ranged from cancer to reproductive damage, allergies, and hormone disruption. Other organizations like Women’s Voices for the Earth and Black Women for Wellness seek to reduce the use and impacts of these chemicals in hopes of a healthier future. 

Early detection is essential, and potentially lifesaving, in increasing the survival rate of breast cancer for Black patients. Though the American Cancer Society Prevention and Early Detection Guidelines suggest that those who may be at risk for breast cancer begin annual screenings at age 40, my mother was first diagnosed at the age of 32, coinciding with data that shows Black women are diagnosed at earlier ages.

Because of this and her own diagnosis, my mother took my older sister and me to our first breast examinations as teenagers. Another common method of detection is breast self-examination, which consists of examining the breast with the fingers and palm to detect any lumps, changes, or inconsistencies. This process should be completed monthly and accounts for around 40% of diagnosed breast cancers. 

Though the cancer returned after initial remission a few years later, my mother was ultimately able to beat the disease and has been cancer-free for over a decade after undergoing a double mastectomy.

Knowing that this result is less likely for others, a push for earlier mammograms and preventative screenings, better access to affordable healthcare options, and more research and trials aimed at and inclusive of Black patients is a necessity to ensure better outcomes. We want Black people like my mother to be able to have a positive outlook about beating this disease. 

Editor's Note

Though this story addresses one mother’s experience with breast cancer and cites statistics regarding Black women’s risk of developing it, Kindred by Parents acknowledges that not all Black people who are diagnosed with breast cancer identify as women or feel comfortable with the term “breasts.”

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