Breast cancer outcomes poorer in black women, studies show

ALBANY — Getting screened, eating healthy, exercising regularly and knowledge of family history make women less vulnerable to breast cancer, which recent studies show is most likely to kill women of color.

It’s a trend that is consistent with what is seen in Southwest Georgia, public health officials say.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society (ACS) show about 232,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year while 39,000 women are expected to die from the disease. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer, the ACS says.

Research has previously shown that black women diagnosed with breast cancer had worse outcomes than other women, but recent data showed just how much more at risk they are.

“A recent Harvard study found that within three years of a breast cancer diagnosis, African-American women were 50 percent more likely to die,” said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Southwest Public Health District. “Shortly after that study, research published in the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ showed that black women are less likely to survive a breast cancer diagnosis within five years because they undergo fewer screenings, have poorer health at the time of diagnosis and their cancer is more advanced by the time it is found.”

The Harvard study was presented last year at an American Association for Cancer Research conference in Boston, and involved 19,480 women who were treated for Stage 1 to Stage 3 breast cancer between January 2000 and December 2007. Researchers looked for deaths among 634 Asian women, 1,291 Hispanic women, 1,500 non-Hispanic black women and 16,055 non-Hispanic white women, reports on the study say.

Jacqueline Jenkins, the epidemiologist for the Southwest Public Health District, said the trend in Southwest Georgia among black women reflects the trend nationally — as a whole — for the same reasons. They are undergoing fewer screenings, have poorer health at the time of the diagnosis and their cancer is more advanced by the time it is discovered.

Grant also noted that black women continue to be more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40, and to die from it at any age, compared to other women. Data from ACS shows similar findings, and also notes that white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than their black counterparts.

“October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” she said. “Know your risk factors. Talk to your health care provider about ways to lower your risk.”

Experts say breast cancer screenings, or mammograms, are important because checking a woman’s breasts before she is having symptoms of cancer is the best way to find and treat the disease early. Some warning signs of breast cancer include a lump or pain in the breast, thickening or swelling in part of the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, redness or flaky skin on the breast, pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area, fluid other than breast milk from the nipple, especially blood, or a change in the shape or size of the breast.

Some of the risk factors associated with breast cancer include age, genetic factors or family history, birth control use, hormone therapy, alcohol use and obesity, the ACS says.