New Research on Black vs. White Women and Breast Cancer Fights off Biological Differences

By Guest Columnist Jul 20, 2009

By Nina Jacinto This post originally appeared on Wiretap. New research suggests that the race gap in breast cancer outcomes cannot be attributed to biological factors alone. A disparity that emerged in the mid-1980s showed that black women were more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. According to the American Cancer Society, 76 percent of black women with breast cancer will live for at least five years, compared to 90 percent of white women. Prior to 2004, most research focused on the sociological factors that contributed to the gap: the assumption was that black women were more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a later and more detrimental stage, due to poorer quality health insurance, and living in low-income neighborhoods. However, new research began to emerge that questioned the biological differences of black and white women. Black women were reported to show higher instances of "triple negative" breast cancer, caused by estrogen-receptor-negative tumors (ER-negative tumors) that are rarer and more difficult to treat. A study conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine showed that black women were three times more likely than any other racial group to develop this aggressive form of breast cancer. Now, two new studies led by Idan Maneshe and his colleagues at the U.S. National Cancer Institute show that even if the instances of ER-negative tumors in black women were the same as the instances among white women, the rate of mortality would only be reduced 10-20 percent. In other words, there would still be a mortality disparity between black and white women. The study also established that overall, black women face a lower breast cancer survival rate than white women. The studies are significant in discovering more information about the effects of breast cancer in black women as well as how biological and societal factors contribute to the survival rate of victims. Instead of concluding that either genetics or access to proper healthcare and treatment results in a higher morality rate for black women with breast cancer, the studies urge researchers to consider multiple factors. Without considering every aspect of contributions to the racial disparity among breast cancer patients, actual solutions will never be possible. In the field of science, researchers must continue to examine how different kinds of breast cancer affect different racial groups and work towards achieving a comprehensive set of treatment programs that consider the gap in prognosis. Although breast cancer is less common among black women than white women, black women are more likely to die from the disease, and to die at a younger age. Breast cancer screening processes need to be created that help detect cancer among younger women of color. In the community, it’s important that black women in particular are aware of of breast cancer and breast cancer detection. Community outreach institutions in communities of color need to educate on the importance of getting mammograms, clinical breast exams and self-exams. But these solutions won’t be effective without fair and equal access to healthcare, breast cancer campaigns that don’t ignore women of color, and better medical and educational resources in low-income communities.