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Black Women and Breast Cancer

Surviving Breast Cancer through Early Detection and Diagnosis

The Issue

Nothing speaks more clearly to the shocking breast cancer health disparities than the fact that Black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, yet have a higher breast cancer death rate.  Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Black women and in 2010, the CDC reported that breast cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for Black women aged 45--64 years. What was most alarming in this CDC report was that the breast cancer death rate for women aged 45--64 years was 60% higher for Black women than white women (56.8 and 35.6 deaths per 100,000, respectively).  (CDC: National Vital Statistics System:

Why this is important for Black women

The growing breast cancer disparities that exist between Black women and white women are alarming. Although the overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is lower for Black women compared with white women, the death rates are higher. It is important to note that Black women also have a lower 5 year survival rate at 77% compared to that of 90% for white women. Contrary to prevailing beliefs, younger Black women up to age 44 have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women, (U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2006 Incidence and Mortality

What Black women need to know?

Breast cancer tends to appear in Black women at a younger age and in more advanced forms. In fact, Black women are two times more likely to develop triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease which has fewer effective treatment options. Triple-negative breast cancers tend to grow and spread more quickly than most other types of breast cancer. We also are known to have denser breast, one of the strongest predictors of risk for breast cancer and also is a known factor limiting the sensitivity of a screening mammogram.  Mammograms of breasts with higher density have been described as harder to read and interpret than those of less dense breasts.  A small cancer can be concealed by dense breast tissue or by the overlap of normal breast structures.

Many women with early breast cancer have no symptoms.  That is why it is so crucial to get screened before symptoms have a chance to appear.   However, the most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancerous, but breast cancers can be tender, soft, or rounded. For this reason, it is important that you have any new breast mass or lump checked by a health care professional experienced in diagnosing breast diseases.

Other signs may include:

  • Swelling of all or part of the breast
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • Pain in the breast or nipple
  • Thickening of the nipple or breast
  • Discharge other than breast milk


What the Imperative is doing

At the Black Women’s Health Imperative, we know that Black women have not benefited from the advances in breast cancer research and new technologies. It is our mission to raise questions, seek understanding, and call attention to what is happening to Black women.

Through our advocacy, policy and national and community-based initiatives, we are working to make eliminating breast cancer disparities among young Black women a public health priority. We do this by:

  • Educating women on the importance of early detection and quick diagnosis
  • Promoting routine breast self-exam (BSE) and clinical breast exam (CBE)
  • Advocating for screening guidelines that are responsive to the needs of Black women
  • Advocating for increased access to new screening tools and quality diagnosis and treatment services
  • Advocating and supporting policies and practices that call for early education and screening among younger women
    • Building leadership in communities to address breast health disparities
    • Engaging women across the country through surveys and focus groups; and listening to the issues and concerns of Black women related to breast cancer
    • Engaging researchers, clinicians, educators and survivors in ongoing dialogue to identify strategies for reducing breast health disparities
    • Working collectively in coalitions at the national and local levels to raise awareness of breast cancer issues for Black women
    • Supporting community organizations in identifying and implementing effective interventions for reducing breast cancer disparities


What Black Women Can Do: Detect. Diagnose. Survive

Early detection is critically important, especially for women at higher risk. For Black women who have been diagnosed at the earliest stage of breast cancer when the tumor is small and localized, early diagnosis can make a difference.

For most of us, early detection and diagnosis are attainable with a few easy steps:

  1. Have your provider show you how to perform monthly breast self-examination (BSE) and perform it faithfully at the same time each month.
  2. See your provider for a clinical breast examination (CBE) at least once a year. 
  3. Have regular mammograms. Since breast density is one of the strongest risk factors for Black women developing breast cancer, insist on digital mammography or some of the newer more advanced technologies that help detect tumors
  4. Learn more about what the Imperative is doing to make breast cancer disparities a priority through our national campaign to end breast cancer disparities, Moving Beyond Pink and sign up for becoming an advocate in your organization and community. 

Breast Cancer News

Published Wednesday, July 6, 2016
We were encouraged to learn that the National Institutes of Health has awarded $12 million to three lead institutions and various other researchers to study breast cancer genetics in Black women. For too long, Black women have been left out of targeted research to understand their breast cancer causes and, particularly, why we get breast cancer at younger more»
Published Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Adding a newer test to digital mammograms can increase the detection rate for breast cancer and decrease nerve-racking false alarms, in which suspicious findings lead women to get extra scans that turn out normal, a study found.

Published Friday, October 4, 2013

Women won’t pay higher health bills simply for being women, and they will be able to get the medical care they need, particularly for breast cancer, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), a leading women’s advocate says.

Published Thursday, October 3, 2013

White women 40 and older have traditionally had the highest rates of breast cancer in the United States, but rising rates among blacks have narrowed the gap in recent years, according to a new American Cancer Society report.

Published Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Genes play a role in breast cancer risk for some; lifestyle changes cut risk for many.

Published Saturday, April 6, 2013

Black breast cancer patients are more likely to die than white patients, regardless of the type of cancer, according to a new study. This suggests that the lower survival rate among black patients is not solely because they are more often diagnosed with less treatable types of breast cancer, the researchers said.

Published Thursday, March 7, 2013

Black breast cancer survivors seem more likely to develop heart failure than other women, a new study says. The increased risk among black women remained even after the researchers accounted for other factors, including age, high blood pressure, diabetes and the use of chemotherapy drugs or medicines to protect the heart -- called cardioprotective drugs.

Published Friday, March 1, 2013

Nearly one in four breast cancer patients has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after they receive their cancer diagnosis, and the risk is highest in black and Asian patients, a new study reveals.

Published Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cigarette smoking appears to increase the risk of breast cancer, especially when women start smoking early in life, new research indicates. The incidence of invasive breast cancer was 24 percent higher in current smokers and 13 percent higher in former smokers, compared to never smokers, the researchers found.

Published Monday, January 7, 2013

Dune Medical Devices, Inc., announced today that its breakthrough intra-operative tissue assessment tool for early-stage breast cancer surgery, the MarginProbe System, has received Premarket Approval (PMA) by the United States Food and Drug Administration.