'Societal factors' at root of breast cancer crisis among black women

March 23, 2012, 8:26 a.m.

Breast cancer mortality rates are higher among black women than white women, even though more white women get the disease, a new study has found. The pink ribbon is the international symbol for breast cancer awareness. (Credit: Asian Media/Flickr Creative Commons)

Black women die from breast cancer at a much higher rate than white women, even though more white women get the disease, said a new study released on Wednesday.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, said that the higher death rate is attributable to poverty and racial inequities, not genetics. It found that the three-year breast cancer mortality rate in Los Angeles between 2005 and 2007 was 46.5 percent for black women, as opposed to 27.4 percent for white women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer occurs more in white women than in black, a trend that the agency reports has carried between 1999 and 2007.

South Los Angeles, according to the L.A. Times Mapping L.A. project, is 38 percent black – that's a higher percentage than any other ethnicity in the region besides Latinos, who comprise 56.7 percent of the population. In terms of a gender breakdown, the U.S. Census says that Los Angeles County's female population is 50.7 percent.

Both men and women living in South L.A. already face a "barren wasteland when it comes specialty care and primary care," according to Nina Vaccaro, executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Centers. As far as breast cancer, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that black women are generally diagnosed in the later stages of the disease and tend to be more susceptible to more aggressive forms of it, with some advocates suggesting there's a racial factor, arguing that doctors are not as aggressive in screening and treating black women with breast cancer as they are with other women.

The study reflected as much, calling for a public commitment making access to quality breast healthcare available to all women, regardless of their ability to pay, according to the Post.

"When a woman believes genetics causes her disease," the lead author of the study, Steve Whitman, said in a statement, "it breeds a sense of hopelessness and fear. Our study proves that black woman can play an active role in reducing their risk of dying from breast cancer by getting screened and following through with treatment. He reiterated that "societal factors" were the cause for the disproportionate breast cancer mortality rates in black women – "not genetics."

The researchers estimated as such that 1,722 black women die unnecessarily from breast cancer every year.

The study's findings, along with its call for public action, could eventually mean good things for South L.A. since it highlights a critical issue – a report by the L.A. County Department of Public Health released in late 2011 said that residents on the southside "reported the greatest difficulty accessing medical care due to cost," along with those in the Metro region.

"It's incumbent on society," said Whitman in the statement, "to improve access to quality mammography and to ensure that breast cancer treatment is available to all women, including the under- and uninsured."

Low-income, underinsured and uninsured woman can find out more about free and low-cost breast cancer screenings at the CDC's website.

Photo by Asian Media via Flickr Creative Commons.

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