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Skin Color and Breast Cancer: How Racial Disparities Are Changing

In 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the breast cancer statistics for Caucasian versus African American women from 1999 to 2013. They also investigated the incidents of breast cancer deaths from 2000 to 2014. The results of their research are promising but also somewhat concerning.

According to the report, younger women of both ethnicities now benefit about equally from timely treatment, and their death rates decreased by about 2% between 2010 and 2014.

African American women over 50, however, are still more likely to die of breast cancer than Caucasian women over 50. The number of diagnosed cases of breast cancer is also increasing for black women in general, and their death rates are falling more slowly than for white women. This begs the question, “Is there a genetic reason for this disparity, or is there something we could be doing to fix it?” The answer, of course, is both.

Two beautiful women lying on the grass. One is caucasian, the other is black, multicultural and friendship concepts.

African American women tend to develop triple-negative breast cancers more often than Caucasian women, which leads to higher death rates because these aggressive forms of cancer do not respond well to many therapies and need to be caught early. There’s not much anyone can do about the fact that some women are more likely to develop more aggressive cancers than others, other than supporting research into causes and treatments.

However, regular screening could help reduce the death rate. Dr. Deepa Halaharvi, a breast cancer surgeon with OhioHealth Breast and Cancer Surgeons, suggests one reason African American women are getting diagnosed later and experiencing higher death rates may be that they’re more likely to skip or put off getting a mammogram, which can happen for a number of reasons. The recent increase in the number of African American women diagnosed with breast cancer, however, could be a sign that more black women are getting screened than ever before, which is good news.

OhioHealth recommends that women begin getting mammograms at 40 years of age and also do monthly self-checks and annual clinical breast exams. Talk to your doctor to learn more about what you can be doing to catch breast cancer early.

In general, however, racial disparities seem to be receding for women with breast cancer, which is great news. Even better is that the death rates for all women are going down, regardless of race. So while we continue to do our best to reduce the racial disparity in breast cancer patients, we’re also working towards reducing the effect breast cancer has on the world. Hooray for that!

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?