According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although the occurrence of breast cancer in African American women is generally lower than that in Caucasian women, black women are more likely to die from the disease than any other racial group.
“Breast cancer in black women is very interesting,” says Dr. Rebecca Alleyne, a fellowship trained breast surgery specialist and a board certified general surgeon in Los Angeles. “Overall, if you took 100,000 black women and 100,000 white women, you’d find less cancer in black women. But in black women, even when it’s found at the same stage, we are more likely to die from it. That’s due in part to not having access to good healthcare, particularly for less wealthy black women who may not have health insurance. But there’s also a genetic component. The types of cancer that black women get are often more aggressive.”
According to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that black women often have aggressive tumors associated with poorer diagnosis, and that the five-year survival rate in African American women is 79 percent, which is lower than that of any other ethnic and racial group in the United States. Yet Alleyne says that a breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence.
“I think that when people come in and they hear ‘the big C,’ they really kind of overestimate how bad their chances of living are. Not to say that it’s anything to take lightly, but it’s not a death sentence anymore,” she explains. “People get really petrified when they hear that word and that’s understandable. When you think about the history of cancer in this country, 20-30 years ago, it was a death sentence. But now, if it’s caught at the first two stages—stage zero and stage one in breast cancer—the survival rate is 97 percent. Even in the later stages, because chemotherapy has gotten much better, people have a much better survival rate.
“Another thing that I see in a lot of my black patients is almost like the ‘Jesus will fix it’ attitude, and a lot of people refuse treatment because they say, ‘no, God will get me through it.’ And my response to that is, I prayed my way through medical school and God put me here to help you. And we now have better treatments available to help you.”
Although Alleyne says that surgery is always recommended for breast cancer patients, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to go through it or that the whole breast has to be removed. “If the tumor is small enough, you can get a lumpectomy, where you just take out the cancerous part and leave the rest of the breast tissue. Surgery doesn’t always mean a mastectomy, where the entire breast is removed.”
Alleyne says that positive lifestyle changes, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can help prevent breast cancer. Also, take the time to put your health and well-being first.
“I think the main thing I see with the African American community is the caretaker’s syndrome,” she says. “Women are taking care of everybody except themselves. Take care of yourself, and if you think something is wrong, follow up with a doctor who you feel comfortable talking to.”