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New study explores racial disparities in breast cancer

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The fatality rate for women with breast cancer has decreased over the past several decades, but the progress has not been shared equally with Black woman.

“White American woman are more likely to get breast cancer, but when you break it down, African-American women are more likely to get it at an earlier age. They are also more likely to die from breast cancer,” said Dr. Katy Patterson with Eskenazi Health.

The National Institute of Health is currently conducting a study on breast cancer in Black women to figure out what factors contribute to this disparity. The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations is the largest investigation of how genetic and biological factors contribute to breast cancer risks in Black women. The study was launched earlier this year.

“Is it the types of cancer, interactions with medicines or the genetics of the patients themselves? We are trying to answer these types of questions that people are speculating about. There are 60,000 women involved in the study. We are looking at the differences in DNA to find out why (Black women) are more likely to die,” said Patterson. 

Out of the 60,000 women involved in the study, 20,000 are Black women with breast cancer, 20,000 are Black women who do not have breast cancer and 20,000 are white women with breast cancer. The study compares the genomes of these women to investigate genetic variations that relate to breast cancer risk in Black women. 

“This effort is about making sure that all Americans, no matter their background, reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine,” said Douglas Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute, in an interview with the National Institute of Health.

Even though the reason behind this disparity is still unknown, Patterson said one factor is that Black women are often diagnosed with more aggressive sub-types of breast cancer, such as triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer is a form of cancer where none of the three most common types of receptors known to fuel cancer growth are present in the cancer tumor.  Treatments that specifically target the most common types of receptors, like hormone therapy, are unsuccessful in treating triple negative breast cancer. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be diagnosed with this sub-type of breast cancer, and it is very difficult to treat.

Early detection is important when it comes to treating breast cancer, and 3D mammography is a new screening and diagnostic technology available that is said to detect breast cancer 15 months earlier. Patterson says this technology is often used to help women with dense breast tissue. 

“Instead of taking one picture on each breast, the computer takes eight pictures and gives us a three dimensional picture. The downside is that it is not always covered by insurance, and the cost can range from $100 to $300,” said Patterson.

According to the National Cancer Institute, researchers do not know if 3D mammography is better or worse than standard mammography at identifying early cancers. 

Patterson says living a healthy lifestyle is the number one way to decrease your likelihood of breast cancer.  

“Regardless of race, an independent risk factor for breast cancer is obesity. You don’t have to go crazy and run a marathon, but at least get three to five days of exercise. Smoking is another risk factor of breast cancer,” said Patterson.

Being knowledgeable about family history and sharing that history with a medical professional will help patients know what preventative measures need to be taken.

“Doctors have different recommendations regarding the best time to start breast cancer screenings and how often we should do them, but genetics have a huge impact on a woman’s risk. Talk to your family to see if you have a history of breast cancer. Was it multiple family members, and how old were they? Doctors can’t know what’s best for the individual without knowing their family history.“

For more information about breast cancer visit the American Cancer Society at cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer. 


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