Black women die of breast cancer at a higher rate than white and Hispanic women. (Stock photo)
Black women die of breast cancer at a higher rate than white and Hispanic women. (Stock photo)

Despite the numerical decrease in breast cancer mortality rates across the U.S., Black women continue to die at higher rates than their Hispanic and White counterparts.  In a quest to promote greater equity in genetic counseling and testing, researchers stress the dire need for more African American women to receive genetic preventative screenings to help determine their risk of developing breast cancer. 

According to the American Cancer Society, Black women experience higher rates of triple-negative breast cancer, estrogen receptive (ER) – negative breast cancer, and a 42 percent greater breast cancer death rate than White women.  But despite these troubling occurrences, medical doctors are less likely to refer Black women patients to breast cancer genetic testing and counseling than their White counterparts.  

While doctors still debate as to when genetic counseling and possible testing should be considered, these tests are said to provide a scope of what variables or conditions might trigger breast cancer diagnoses for Black women, in addition to guiding the best treatment options for women who develop breast cancer.  Intricate screening methods at the least stand as viable options in addressing breast cancer potential, and occurrence as early as possible.

Dr. Ego-Osuala, breast radiologist with Washington Radiology in NW, D.C., illustrates a clearer understanding of why 3D imaging, for example, can potentially increase a woman’s chance of survival while battling breast cancer diagnoses, as it provides more accurate and clear detection abilities, especially for women with dense breast tissue. 

“When we look at breast density, it is the whiteness that we see.  The problem with dense tissue is that it’s white, but guess what’s also white? Cancer.  So you can see how cancer can easily hide in someone with dense tissue,” Dr. Ego-Osuala explained.  “It [3D mammography] makes it easier for us to see in terms of looking at the breast and the density.  It’s still not perfect, but it definitely does help us see better.  It reduces the rates of false positives because we can see better, and it also reduces the recall rates that we have.”

While mammography examinations are highly recommended to women from age forty and older, medical prejudice, lack of medical access, and fear tend to turn numbers of African American women away from getting a head start on addressing either preventative measures or best solutions to early-stage breast cancer.

Dr. Ego-Osuala highlights the importance of this conversation regarding misconceptions or fear about cancer detection processes, as African American women are the main demographic suffering from higher mortality rates and more aggressive forms of the disease, inclusively due to not accessing mammograms, or following up on care as much as needed.  However, the benefits of genetic testing and mammogram screenings seemingly outweigh the risks. 

“While we do believe that up to 30 percent of breast cancers are preventable just from lifestyle, dietary, and physical activity – it is very hard to tell exactly why Black women have a more aggressive subtype,” said Dr. Ego-Osuala.  “Recently there’s been research [from Cornell University] talking about the fact that there might be some genetic component to it and the fact that our tumor biology and tumor genetics are different from our white counterparts.  So if we have certain genes that predispose us to the more aggressive subtypes, [then] we can do more research as time goes on to see [why] those genes that cause certain responses of certain cancers act the way they act.”

Key findings of African American women developing mutations in specific cancer predisposition genes have shown to be strong indicators of developing breast cancer in Black women.  Medical professionals continue to push physicians to direct proper attention to the health and preventative measures extended to African American women as they continue to manage the battle with breast cancer disease.

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