For the first time ever, black women are getting breast cancer at the same rate as their white counterparts, the report says. The incidence of breast cancer in black women increased 0.4 percent between 2008 and 2012, while it remained stable for white women.
Historically, black women have been much more likely to die from breast cancer than white women at every age, while white women have led black women in the prevalence of breast cancer. Black women are still dying from breast cancer at a rate far higher than white women — but now, they’re also getting the disease at the same rate. And according to the report, the disparity between white and black women in breast cancer death rates has actually increased. Death rates were 42% higher in black women than white women in 2012, the report says, and researchers expect that trend to continue.
“It is a crisis,” Marc Hurlbert, chief mission officer for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, told The New York Times.
Death rates were 42% higher in black women than white women in 2012.
-American Cancer Society
Black women are diagnosed at later stages and are less likely to survive at every stage of breast cancer than other racial and ethnic groups, the report says. Diagnoses and deaths also occur at younger ages in black women than white women.
Rising obesity rates among black women and changes in black women’s reproductive patterns likely play a role in the changing rates of breast cancer, according to the report. In 2012, 58 percent of black women were obese, compared to 33 percent of white women. More fat increases estrogen levels in the body, which is a risk factor for some forms of breast cancer, including estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer, which has been on the rise among black women. Additionally, black women are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype linked to poorer survival.
Besides lifestyle factors, racial disparities in health care — from preventive services and diagnosis to treatment and survival care — also contribute greatly to poorer breast cancer outcomes among black women. For example, black women are significantly less likely to be referred for specialty preventive services like genetic testing, even though they have a higher risk for certain breast-cancer-related genetic mutations. And African-American and Latina women are up to 40 percent more likely to receive treatment not in line with breast cancer guidelines. According to a 2014 study by the Avon Foundation for Women, about five deaths a day among black women, or 1,710 deaths annually, can be directly attributed to racial disparities in breast cancer screening and treatment.
“The difference in mortality rates represents who gets access to quality care,” Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, told US News & World Report. “They also represent when women of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinas, get their breast cancer diagnosed. [That] tends to be a much later stage, when the prognosis isn’t as good.”
Of course, broader systemic factors also play a role in these disparities. The stress of racism and sexism, combined with factors such as disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins, poverty and entrenched wealth inequality, neighborhood segregation, and other social injustices take a toll on black women’s health. And it doesn’t help that black women’s health and access to care are constantly being threatened by the antics of Republican politicians. Whether it’s refusing to expand Medicaid eligibility to cover more low-income patients, forcing deep cuts to social programs like SNAP (food stamps), or cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and the 935,573 cancer screenings they provided in 2013, black women are almost always among the hardest-hit by the Republican agenda — and these new figures bear witness to the devastating fallout.
“To me the bottom line of these statistics is the evidence that the health disparity between African-American and white women in the U.S. is still going strong,” Kirsten Moysich, a professor of oncology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, told The New York Times.