James LaVelle Dickens, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP,
Captain, U.S. Pubic Health Service Commissioned Corps
Breast cancer is the second most common kind of cancer among women in the U.S. Unfortunately, there are racial disparities that result in a higher mortality rate. While breast cancer incidence is lower among African American women than white women, the mortality rate is 42 percent higher. It is widely thought that the higher mortality rate among African American women is a result of a lack of comprehensive care, including preventive screenings. Here’s a look at a few probable factors behind this disconcerting trend, along with steps you can take to reduce your risk:
- Screening can be costly and time consuming. Three out of every ten women – regardless of race – do not get regular mammograms. Low income levels, lack of access to a convenient mammography center, the absence of a regular health insurance provider, lack of child care and the inability to leave work all contribute to missed breast cancer screenings, which are really missed life-saving opportunities to detect early stage cancer. If you’ve skipped screenings because you don’t have the time or money, see a nurse practitioner and discuss ways to make screening more accessible. In the meantime, keep up with your self-exams at home and remember that 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancer is detected by women who discover a lump on their own.
- Mammograms are important, but so is the follow-up. The good news is African American women are more diligent than ever about getting their mammograms. In fact, nearly 70 percent over the age of 40 have had a mammogram in the last two years. The bad news is African American women are less inclined to follow up after a mammogram, even if they receive abnormal results, and this can lead to a worse prognosis. If you checked the mammogram box but didn’t meet with a provider to discuss findings and next steps, your work is not done. See your nurse practitioner to develop a plan for early detection.
- Obesity affects your risk of breast cancer. Excess weight increases the risk of breast cancer, and African American women are 60 percent more likely to be overweight compared to other groups in the U.S. The American Cancer Society urges women to lose weight to help reduce their cancer risk, but this is not a message women often hear in conjunction with breast cancer awareness. For those struggling with weight loss, this can play an important role in preventing breast cancer, so talk to your provider about strategies that make sense for you.
Breast cancer is a huge threat to women in this country. One out of every eight women will be diagnosed at some point in her life, and more than 250,000 will get that news this year. While in the past African American women have been more successful in avoiding breast cancer, today, African Americans who are diagnosed face a 40 percent greater mortality rate. The pink ribbons you see this month are an important reminder that there is still much that needs to be done to improve research, advance treatments and increase awareness of breast cancer for all diagnosed with this curable disease. In the meantime, African American women need to be more adamant than ever about reducing their risks and detecting breast cancer early. A nurse practitioner can help you determine your personal risk so you can better plan your prevention strategy.