Stay Proactive and Informed about Breast Cancer

It’s that time of year again—October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While there’s increased attention surrounding breast cancer this month, it’s always important to be in-the-know about the threats to black women, overall risk factors, and the importance of early detection any time of the year.

Breast cancer among black women vs. white women

While both black and white women get breast cancer at approximately the same rate, studies show that black women die from breast cancer at a 40% higher rate than white women.

Clearly, breast cancer is a danger to women of all races and ethnicities. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports about 237,000 annual cases of breast cancer among women. However, there are notable differences between black and white women:

  • While both black and white women get breast cancer at approximately the same rate, studies show that black women die from breast cancer at a 40% higher rate than white women.

  • Breast cancer is more likely to be found at an earlier stage among white women than among black women.

  • Black women are more likely than white women to get triple-negative breast cancera kind of breast cancer that can be highly aggressive and come back after treatment.

Testing and Diagnostics

These sobering facts suggest that black women must be especially vigilant about early detection and screenings. There are a variety of methods used today to identify and diagnose breast cancer:

  • A mammogram is the most widespread, effective, and convenient way to screen for a tumor. It is basically an x-ray of the breast and can detect a tumor up to two years before you or your doctor can feel it. Starting around the age of 40, most women should have a mammogram at least once a year. Women who are at higher risk for breast cancer should have an annual mammogram, as well as an MRI (see below), starting at age 30.

  • A manual breast exam is typically employed during a routine check-up. The doctor will check both your breasts and lymph nodes in your armpit to feel for any lumps or abnormalities.

  • An ultrasound uses sound waves to produce images of structures within the body. This may be used to determine whether a suspected breast lump is a solid mass (more likely to be a tumor) or a fluid-filled cyst (less cause for concern).
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a magnet and radio waves to create pictures of the interior of your breast. Before or during a breast MRI, dye is injected into a vein, which can help create clearer images that make abnormalities easier to see. Unlike other types of imaging tests, an MRI doesn't use radiation to create the images.
  • For a biopsy, your doctor uses a needle-like device to extract a small sample of tissue from a suspicious area in the breast. This sample is then sent to a laboratory where its cells are analyzed to determine whether or not they are cancerous, the aggressiveness of the cancer, and other factors that may affect treatment options.

Risk factors

There are some known risk factors for breast cancer. While these may not be directly linked to breast cancer, you should talk to your doctor about these topics to better understand your risk profile:

  • Past history of breast cancer
    If you’ve already had a tumor in one breast, you are at a higher risk of developing cancer in the other breast.

  • Family history of breast cancer
    You are at a higher risk of breast cancer if your mother, sister, or even daughter have had breast cancer, especially if they had it at a young age (before the age of 40). Your risk is also higher if you have other relatives who have had breast cancer.

  • Childbearing history
    The later in life a woman gives birth to her first child, the greater her risk of breast cancer. Other factors that increase risk include:
    • Having your first period at an early age (before the age of 12)
    • Having menopause at a later age (after age 55)
    • Never given birth

  • Breast density
    Women with more dense tissue than fatty tissue in their breasts may be at higher risk. This also makes it harder for a mammogram to detect a tumor and may require alternative types of screenings, such as an MRI.

  • Aging
    As women grow older, the chance of getting breast cancer increases. Almost 80 percent of all breast cancer cases are found in women 50 and older.

Reducing your risk

Although many factors are beyond your control, you can follow some steps for a healthy lifestyle to help lower your risk. These include:

It’s also a good practice to perform a self-exam at least once a month. This helps you be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so that you can alert your doctor if you notice any changes. Be sure to involve your OB/GYN in any matters concerning your breast health as well.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a wonderful observance of women’s health that deserves all the attention it receives. Just be sure not to let your guard down the rest of the year.

Diana Wilson

Diana Wilson, M.D. F.A.C.O.G.

Specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Diana Wilson is an Assistant Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology. She is board-certified and earned her medical degree from Kansas University and completed her OBGYN residency at Truman Medical Center. She has many years of hands on experience and prior to joining Morehouse School of Medicine she was in private practice.

Dr. Wilson treats a wide range of obstetrical and gynecological problems. She is trained to treat high risk and twin pregnancy as well as issues that affect the adolescent to the elderly patient. Her special interests are in the area of management of menorrhagia, treatment for uterine fibroids, non-hormonal and hormonal options for symptomatic menopause, family planning, short and long term contraception, permanent sterilization and adolescent care. Dr. Wilson performs in office procedures and minimally invasive surgery.

Learn more about Dr. Wilson.