What Black Women Need to Know About Breast Cancer

For Black women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death, according the American Cancer Society. While Black women and white women get breast cancer at about the same rate, Black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

“This is a mind-opening fact that shows disparities exist within breast health,” says Dr. Vivian Bea, section chief of breast surgical oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

Dr. Bea says many factors contribute to breast cancer disparities, ranging from social determinants to genetics and tumor biology. She spoke to us about what Black women should know about their breast cancer risk and breast health, and dispels myths about a breast cancer diagnosis.

  1. Know The Facts
    Researchers are working to better understand why there’s such a big disparity in breast cancer outcomes between Black and white women. Access to care is an issue, but other factors include genetics and tumor biology, says Dr. Bea. Research indicates that genetics may play a part in this higher risk disparity. Black women are more likely to have triple-negative breast cancer, a rarer but more aggressive form that does not respond to hormonal treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, triple-negative breast cancer is about twice as common in Black women as white women in the U.S.
  2. Get Screened
    Early detection is the best protection. “Even though Black women are more likely to have triple-negative breast cancer, if we catch these women at the earliest stage of that breast cancer, there is a better chance for survival,” says Dr. Bea. “Black women are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age with the more aggressive tumor subtype, so I recommend going annually starting at the age of 40.”
  3. Don’t Believe Myths
    There is understandably a lot of fear around a breast cancer diagnosis, but it is important to be aware of the many advances made in care. For example, Dr. Bea says some patients have expressed concern that if they receive a diagnosis of cancer and have surgery, the surgery could cause the cancer to spread. “This is false,” she says.

Women may believe that surgeons will have to remove their breasts, which is also not true. “We can offer modern approaches to breast surgery, such as lumpectomy or breastconserving surgery, which only removes a portion of the breast,” says Dr. Bea. “Those myths may be widening the gap of women not getting their mammograms right now. But it’s important to remember early detection saves lives.”

  1. Know Your Breasts
    Dr. Bea encourages women to do a breast self-exam every month. “If there is an abnormality, you’d be the first to detect it,” she says. Signs to look for include nipple discharge, a palpable mass (a lump), or any skin changes. Clinical breast exams are important at least yearly with a licensed practitioner.

Dr. Bea hopes that by building trust with her patients and prioritizing education, outreach, and early diagnosis, she can address disparities in the community and save lives. “I have a voice and it’s my duty to use it and be at the forefront of this conversation.”

Equally important is a diverse care team. “NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital has a multidisciplinary team of Black women who treat breast cancer, which is rare,” says Dr. Bea. “If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s important to receive high-quality care, which we offer here with a diverse multidisciplinary department.”

Vivian J. Bea, M.D., is on Twitter at @IamDrVivian. To make an appointment with Dr. Bea, please call 718-780-3022.