This story is part of Survivor's Guide, a series on navigating the impact of breast cancer through beauty and self-care.
The distrust so many Black people feel toward the medical community is deeply rooted in the implicit bias we face. Historically, the medical industry has on many occasions failed to properly diagnose, believe, and treat Black women, and this has made many of us hesitant to seek care until our symptoms are dire. Examples of racial disparities in treatment can be found across conditions, but breast cancer is one example where the differences for Black women and our white counterparts are particularly stark, including in the rate of diagnosis and quality of treatment.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in 2017, though the rate of new cases of breast cancer was similar for white and Black women, the death rate from breast cancer for Black women was higher than for white women. Additionally, statistics from the NCI’s 2020 Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program provided a four-year analysis of breast cancer deaths, from 2014 to 2018, that showed similar figures on death rates. SEER’s data found that white women died at a rate of about 19 per 100,000, compared to a rate of approximately 27 per 100,000 Black women.
Cynthia Jones, the chair of Newton Medical Center’s department of surgery in New Jersey, who specializes in breast, laparoscopic, and general surgery, has over 23 years of experience treating breast cancer. She explains that many other factors are also at play when it comes to a patient’s prognosis, such as access to preventative services, physician bias, and characteristics of the cancer.
Clinical studies would help, but it’s not that simple
According to Jones, more clinical studies would be helpful in successfully treating breast cancer in Black women, but there is a lack of participation — perhaps for good reason. “Large, prospective, controlled breast cancer studies — the ones to help us determine best practices — have very few Black participants. There are a number of reasons for this, but it leaves us to extrapolate what will be the best therapy for Black women from the results of those that did participate,” she explains. The NCI has been trying to remedy this. In 2016, as reported by Allure at the time, the NCI launched the largest ever study of breast cancer genetics in Black women. Instead of recruiting new participants, researchers planned to aggregate and analyze the data, resources, and bio-specimens of 18 previous studies, for a total study population of 20,000 Black women with breast cancer.
Damali Martin, the NCI’s program director for the Division of Cancer Control & Population Sciences, has updated Allure on the status of the four-year study: “This large study of genetics of breast cancer conducted in women of African ancestry builds on years of scientific cooperation between members of the African American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) Consortium, and the NCI Cohort Consortium, and will significantly improve our understanding of breast cancer genetics and biology in women of African ancestry as well as identify potential genetic targets for breast cancer prevention or novel cancer treatments in high-risk women.” The study is in its last year of funding, according to Martin, and investigators anticipate sharing results within the next 6 to 12 months.