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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Killing the ‘Strong Black Woman’

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Breast cancer is responsible for killing Black women at a higher rate than it does other races. But why?

For far too long, Black women have borne the label of always being strong. In every situation – grief, loss, tragedy, trauma – Black women carry the burden of staying strong. At all costs. At all times. We must work twice as hard, be more prepared, take care of everyone (including strangers), and we can never let anyone down. Even in sickness, we are tasked with not complaining or becoming a burden on others. We must remain the “Strong Black Woman.”

“Arising from a history of enslavement, the concept involves suppressing emotions, always acting strong, taking care of others while neglecting care of oneself and declining others’ support,” reported a study by Tammie Denyse et al., aptly titled “No Complaining, No Crying,” published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Among the Black women participants in the study, the researchers found that Black women were expected to minimize their feelings and prioritize caring for other people even as they were facing a breast cancer diagnosis of their own. When they needed help the most, they were still asked to put other people first. A Strong Black Woman does not need to ask for help. She is there to serve others – even from her sick bed.

This undue pressure mirrors the very nature of cancer itself. It is infectious. It creeps into every part of a person’s life. Putting oneself last, carrying every burden and everyone else’s burden takes a toll.

It is no wonder that Black women are dying at a higher rate from breast cancer. It is so much more challenging to recover when you do not allow yourself to rest and heal.

Add to that the continued misconception that Black women’s pain is not recognized as the same and their concerns are not adequately addressed by medical professionals and one can see how the differences in outcomes remain. The American Cancer Society (ACS) reported that Black women had a 4% lower incidence rate of the disease, but a 40% higher death rate.

The health care system itself has a role in the stark differences in outcomes.

“We have been reporting this same disparity year after year for a decade. The differences in death rates are not explained by Black women having more aggressive cancers. It is time for health systems to take a hard look at how they are caring differently for Black women,” said Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director at ACS Cancer Surveillance.

In addition to the health care system, several other systemic factors contribute to the disparate outcomes.

“Black women in the U.S. are disproportionately affected by myriad health issues and disparities. What underlies all of them is the country’s long history of structural and systemic racism – the process within social, commercial and government systems that disadvantage Black Americans. They can be seen through inequities in socioeconomic status, segregated communities, and even how Black women’s pain and conditions are disbelieved and dismissed by the medical community,” as reported by Jenn Walton in Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine.

Imagine having to stay strong in the face of so many obstacles. Imagine trying to figure out how to prioritize health when there seem to be countless other issues to resolve. Additionally, decades of conditioning have convinced Black women that their feelings, their voices and their perspectives do not matter. No wonder Black women so often put themselves last. There are quite literally so many other problems to solve, and, when speaking about one’s individual problems, it seems like no one is listening.

To overcome these challenges, however, resilience is vital and hope is necessary. So is asking for and accepting help. Creating a new meaning of the “Strong Black Woman” is a step toward a healthier life. In Denyse et. al.’s study, the participants came to redefine the “Strong Black Woman” as someone who is finally free to share her feelings and receive the help she needs. Going forward, vulnerability, emotional expression and self-advocacy should be added to a new definition of strength.

Contact Editor-in-Chief Camike Jones at camikej@indyrecorder.com or 317-762-7850.

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