Breast Cancer is uprooting the lives of Black women at a rapid pace. Statistically, breast cancer affects more women than any other cancer. It is also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women. Of those diagnosed with the deadly disease, African American women have a 31% mortality rate – the highest of any ethnic group in the United States.
According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, “Among women younger than 45, breast cancer incidence is higher among African American women than White women.” This is largely because preventative care often takes a back seat. In a very open dialog, Grammy Award-winning artist Mary J. Blige, Dr. Arlene Richardson, Chair of the Department of Radiology at Jackson Park Health, and Linda Goler Blount, President & CEO of Black Women’s Health Imperative, have a candid discussion about the importance of early detection, preventative care, and the significance of having open conversations with your family members about your family’s health history. Hosted by Hologic, the company behind the Genius® 3D Mammography exam and the inaugural Global Women’s Health Index, the Screening the System: A Dialogue on Bias and Breast Health panel discussion encourages women of color to take better control of their health through preventative care.
Early detection saves lives. Although doctors know this, Black women have become a casualty because we aren’t discussing the importance of preventative care, early detection, and our family health history. According to Linda Goler Blount, the issue is not that cancer attacks Black women on a larger scale; it’s that by the time Black women are diagnosed with cancer, it is too late. More people would survive a breast cancer diagnosis if it were detected earlier.
There are tons of disparities that contribute to Black women being diagnosed too late. Per Dr. Arlene Richardson, the access that low-income communities have to such health screenings is scarce. Someone living check-to-check is less likely to prioritize their health unless an issue is present. There is also a distrust that people in the Black community have when it comes to the quality of care they receive from medical providers. The public health system carries the stigma of miss managing the lives of Black women. This can be proven when you examine a system that consistently misdiagnoses women of color and then deprives them of the same basic rights that our white counterparts are offered. With this in mind, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on early detection and preventative care.
Part of early detection is discussing family health history with the women in your life. I’ll never forget the first time a doctor told me I had a lump in my breast. I was terrified. I ran home to my mother and she said, “I’ve had a doctor tell me that I have a calcium buildup in my breast so they appear lumpy sometimes.” My initial thoughts were, “Why haven’t we discussed this before?” My mom said that she didn’t want to concern me, but the truth is, my mother’s current health is a loose roadmap to my future health. After further tests, it was determined that I also had a calcium buildup in my breasts and I was cancer-free.
“There’s nobody speaking about it in our families when we were younger,” Mary said. “I didn’t know about breast cancer and mammograms until I was 40 and I was in the music business, and I was trying to take care of myself. My body started talking, and I started listening. I found out about a mammogram at the GYN. They don’t discuss this as children,” she continued.
An open discussion about things like miscarriages, cancer diagnoses, aliments, and more can serve as a personal reference in your own health journey. Knowledge of the health of your family’s bloodline will make you a better advocate in the doctor’s office. With reference, you can ask about preventative tests based on the health history of your siblings, parents, and grandparents.
Black women should screen for breast cancer at 40 years old. For women under 40 like myself, jump ahead of the curve by scheduling an early mammogram. My grandmother turns 90 in November and she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the first person in my bloodline to have that specific cancer. For me, that’s enough to become proactive about my health and tap into the advantages of early detection.
As we trek through Breast Cancer Awareness Month, take some time to advocate for yourself. Start with an at-home breast exam. Keep the momentum going by having an open conversation with the women in your life. What has their health journey been like? Is it similar to yours? How can you support each other? Lastly, reach out to your primary care doctor and schedule a full physical that tests for all cancers – not just breasts. Preventative care begins with you.