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Closing Breast Cancer Survival Rate Disparities Among Black Women

As 2022 approaches its end and we begin to think of things we wish to better for next year, it’s important to take the time to give breast cancer disparities among Black women a platform. 

Approximately, 287,850 people will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and 51,400 people will be diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer this year according to the American Cancer Society. Although this number is incredibly less than the numbers in decades previous, mortality gaps between Black women and white women has persistently stayed high. Black women are 40% more likely than white women to die from breast cancer. This rate is even higher in Black women under the age of 50. Black women in this age range are twice as likely to die from invasive breast cancer than white women. 

Why is this? Factors that increase someone’s chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer are diabetes, heart disease and obesity, all of which are diseases that Black women are already more likely to have. Along with this, is inadequate health care access. Black women tend to get screened for breast cancer less often than white women and often have their cancer caught too late. 

I interviewed Dr. Martinique Free, a professor within the Department of Health Studies and Director of the Public Health three-year scholar program for her suggestions and comments on navigating this epidemic. Dr. Free runs a project hosted in American University’s Humanities Truck called The Black Women’s Movement to Reclaim Our Health Project. The project aims to illustrate, highlight and analyze efforts of health activists and organizations centered specifically on Black women’s health. Dr. Free also is working on a Prevention Positives Project in Butiru, Uganda. The purpose of the project is to give a clean birthing kit to women who are pregnant and HIV positive if they are not able to reach the hospital in time for delivery to decrease perinatal transmission. 

Dr. Free commented on what could be done from a public health standpoint to decrease the mortality gap between white women diagnosed with breast cancer and black women diagnosed with breast cancer. Her recommendations center around creating more access points for Black women to get screened for breast cancer.

“Streamlining the process to access breast imaging services by making it easy to schedule appointments, offering referrals for medical care, and identifying financial support for imaging can make a huge difference as to if and when a Black woman is screened and diagnosed.”

Dr. Free goes on to recommend advise for Black women at American as well as women everywhere on how to lower their risk of contracting late-stage breast cancer, 

“Learning how to effectively conduct self-breast exams and commit to doing them the week after your cycle ends every month is key. I think it is important to know your family history of breast cancer and the screening recommendations unique to individuals with a history of breast cancer in their family. My aunt is a three-time survivor of breast cancer therefore, I started screening five years prior to the age of her first diagnosis. Lastly, in addition to limiting alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet and consistent exercise regimen is key to reducing risk.”

Picture provided by Dr. Free.

Breast Cancer screenings are an essential aspect of women’s health. Some things you could do on AU’s campus to lower your risk of late-stage breast cancer include getting screened today at the Student Health Center. You can make an appointment for a screening just like any other appointment through your Student Health Portal. 

Screenshot of where to find breast examination information at the AU Student Health Center. 

You can also maintain knowledge of your own breast health by conducting self-breast exams. A self-breast exam is an inspection of your breasts that is done on your own to increase self-awareness of your breast health. Below is a 5-step method from provided by 

Step 1 - Examine your breasts in a mirror with hands on hips.

Look for:

  • Dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin

  •  A nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple (pushed inward instead of sticking out) 

  • Redness, soreness, rash, or swelling

If you detect any of these contact your doctor or the Student Health Center as soon as possible.  

Step 2 

Raise Arms and Examine Your Breasts

Step 3 - Look for Signs of Breast Fluid

Fluid can be watery, milky, or yellow fluid or blood

Step 4 - Feel for Breast Lumps While Lying Down

  • While using a firm touch use the first few finger pads of your hand. Keep the fingers flat and together. Press down with your fingers and move them in a circular motion that’s about the size of a quarter 

  • Cover the entire breast from top to bottom and side to side. Examine from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.

  • Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts

Step 5 - Feel your breasts for lumps while standing or sitting

Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in step 4.

As we approach the end of the year, it is important that we keep in mind the importance of breast health and continue to work to close disparities adversely affecting women of color. Strive to make breast cancer screenings a routine and be sure to utilize resources here at AU to stay on top of your breast health. If you have any questions please refer to the Student Health Center at 202-885-3380 or the CDC’s website for information on screenings, symptoms, risk factors, and more.

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