For decades, black women had lower breast cancer rates than whites, but that gap has narrowed in recent years. Breast cancer is now as common among black women in the U.S. as it is in white women, a new report found, and black women are more likely to die from the disease.
The disparities exist because black women may have higher exposure to certain breast cancer risk factors compared to white women, and they often have poorer access to mammography and other types of screening, as well as effective therapies.
There are factors that actually increase risk for breast cancer in the black population:
- Obesity causes breast cancer (Black women have gone from 15 percent of adult black women being obese in the 1970’s to now over 60 percent today).
- Diets that are low in fruits and vegetables cause breast cancer.
- Not breast-feeding actually increases risk for breast cancer and that is a problem as well in the black population.
Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Atlanta to discuss.
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: A new report from the American Cancer Society finds breast cancer is now as common among black women in the U.S. as it is among white women.
The data published this week shows the rate of breast cancer among African-Americans had ranged from 119 to 125 out of every 100,000 women.
But in 2012, that rate went up to 135 out of every 100,000 black women, matching the rate of white women. That number is troubling in part because breast cancer is more fatal for black women than white women: they are 42 percent more likely to die from the disease.
Joining me now from Atlanta to discuss this report is Doctor Otis Brawley. He’s the chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society.
So, when you look at these numbers, what I’m a little concerned about is, if that rate was able to catch up, does that mean it is on a bad trajectory and it could even get worse?
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: I believe it will get worse, and we need to address it now to prevent it from getting worse.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And what is it that actually caught this population up? What is it in African-American women that makes them more likely to die from a diagnosis or after a diagnosis of breast cancer than white women?
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: There are a couple of factors that actually increase risk for breast cancer and they are working very hard and unfortunately very effectively in the black population.
Obesity causes breast cancer. Black women have gone from 15 percent of adult black women being obese in the 1970’s to now over 60 percent today.
Diets that are low in fruits and vegetables cause breast cancer. And unfortunately, we have a number of people who have bad diets.
Not breast-feeding actually increases risk for breast cancer and that is a problem as well in the black population. We don’t have enough women who are breast-feeding when they have a child.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, this is not just a case of increased diagnoses?
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Yes. This is not case of they have always had it and we are now starting to find it. This is a case of, they are starting to have it in greater and greater numbers.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the access part of the equation? Say, for example, for mammograms and screenings?
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: Yes. Well, mammograph rates between rates between blacks and whites are actually very similar, however, we do have data to show that black women and I would add to that poor white women are less likely to get high quality mammography.
Once diagnosed with abnormality they are less likely to get high quality diagnostics.
And very importantly, we got good data show that black women and poor white women and poor other minorities as well are less likely to get good treatment, and some of the disparity in mortality that we see amongst blacks and whites are actually due to disparities in quality of treatment.
HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So what do you do about this? How do you get the cancer rate down for all women, but especially when you see this problem in communities of color?
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: My message is a message for all women, not just women of color and that is try to maintain an ideal body weight, try to get good exercise, try to have a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, try to decrease meat consumption, if you have a child, try to breast-feed.
If diagnosed with breast cancer, you need to seek the highest, best quality care that we can.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Dr. Otis Brawley from the American Cancer Society, thanks so much.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: My pleasure. Thank you.