Breast Cancer Treatment Lacking for Black Women

Black women die of breast cancer at higher rates than white women. Part of the reason is lacking preventive care, but there are other factors — and some of those may be beyond the patient's control. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates explains.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

Black women die of breast cancer at higher rates than white women. Part of the issue is who gets mammograms and check-ups. But there are factors as outlined by the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center. And some maybe beyond the patient's control.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSY BATES: A lot of women are frightened they might develop breast cancer, but despite that, they avoid going for screenings or exams that might help in early detection.

Former CBS anchor Rene Syler is herself a breast cancer survivor. In an online interview with Black America Web, she says she understands that fear, but doesn't want it to get in the way of saving lives.

(Soundbite of recorded interview in Black America Web)

Ms. RENE SYLER (CBS Anchor, "The Early Show"): I've heard people say, I don't want to know. If I have cancer, I don't want to know. Why?

Unidentified Female #1: Right.

Ms. SYLER: Why would you not want to know that? Wouldn't you want to a fighting chance at success in beating the disease?

BATES: Knowledge can be power, but sometimes it complicates the choices you have to make.

A recent preliminary study by the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center says black women's breast cancers often occur at a younger age and are more aggressive than they are for their white peers.

Dr. CATHERINE LEE (Oncologist, University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center): We also found that African-American women were diagnosed at a higher stage.

BATES: That's lead researcher for the Michigan Study oncologist Catherine Lee.

Cancer stages go from one to four. A higher number indicates the disease has progressed further. Dr. Lee says annual imaging and exams are important parts of breast health. But as the Michigan Study and others have pointed out there are other pieces to this puzzle.

Dr. LEE: These findings demonstrate that there is something else is going on - something biologic that is contributing to the outcomes of African-American women compared to white American women.

BATES: That something else is the realization that African-American women have a greater proclivity for estrogen-receptive negative or ER-negative tumors. These tumors don't absorb the hormone-based therapies that successfully treat some tumors.

Marcy Deveaux, an associate journalism professor at Cal State University-Northridge, describes herself as one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, but she caught it very early. Her tumor was so little, she say, it was classified T1, the smallest classification.

Professor MARCY DEVEAUX (Journalism, California State University Northridge): Finding breast cancer so early now that they had to put a stage in between zero and one.

BATES: That was good news for Deveaux. Discovering she was in that group of women who are ER-negative, wasn't. After frank discussions with her doctor, she knew what that meant.

Prof. DEVEAUX: It means our tumors won't accept Tamoxifen. Some of those other drugs that are now sort of the wonder drugs that are being used.

BATES: But if traditional therapies won't work for these kinds of breast tumors, what does? Deveaux's Beverly Hills oncologist, Dr. Philomena McAndrew, agrees options are limited.

Dr. PHILOMENA McANDREW (Oncologist): Part of the reason is that we don't have specific targeted therapy that we can use in addition to the chemotherapy, the general chemotherapy that will act to further reduce the risk of spread overtime as well as reduce the risk of a new breast cancer in the other breast.

BATES: Dr. McAndrew insists an ER-negative diagnosis is not a death sentence.

Dr. McANDREW: Having a tumor that has aggressive features is not synonymous with the fact that their tumor is going to recur. Many - and most of those women are cured or are ultimately alive many years later without evidence of spread of the disease.

BATES: Marcy Deveaux has learned through Dr. McAndrew and her own research that there are things she can control such as exercising daily, reducing her fat intake and drinking alcohol occasionally, if at all. She feels comfortable that these will lower her risk of recurrence and that time might be the biggest help of all.

Dr. McANDREW: There are breakthroughs almost every month. I truly believe we will find, if not a cure, we will find a better way to manage this chronic disease hopefully in the next five years.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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