The Importance of Breast Cancer Awareness for Black Women and Women of Color

Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS
October 13, 2021
4 mins

In the United States, it’s expected that roughly 13 percent of women will develop invasive breast cancer during their life. That’s more than 280,000 cases every year. But the risks are not the same for everyone: According to data shared by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, white women have the highest rates of diagnosed breast cancer, at 13 percent, followed closely by Black women at 12 percent (who, despite this slightly lower diagnosis rate, have the highest mortality rate of any demographic group). Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander women have a lifetime risk of 11 percent, followed by Native American women at 8 percent.

Doctors and researchers are working to determine exactly why these rates vary, but they point to many factors that contribute to rates of diagnosis and mortality among different communities. 

Paying attention to breast health is important for everyone — this means regular visits with a healthcare provider, mammograms, and early detection, including monthly breast self-exams (learn more about the importance of self-exams and how to perform them, in “Keeping Abreast of Your Health with Regular Self-Exams.”) 

BIPOC Communities and Breast Cancer

In the United States, Black women have the highest mortality rate from breast cancer. And even though white women are slightly more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, disease rates for breast cancer among young Black women are higher than their white counterparts.

There are many factors that influence how a person experiences breast cancer. Age at time of diagnosis, type of breast cancer, and overall health at time of diagnosis are contributing factors that can impact survival rates. Some other common contributing factors include:

     • Age at first period

     • Weight

     • Number of childbirths

     • Whether children were breastfed

     • Age at menopause

     • Use of menopausal and other types of hormone therapy  

Some of these risk factors affect Black women and women of color in particular.

Common Types of Breast Cancer Among BIPOC Women

Many different types of breast cancer affect people today. Their severity depends on the cancer’s growth pattern, its location (whether it began in the breast ducts, breast tissue, or breast lobules), and its molecular subtype.

One of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer is triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). It has a higher overall mortality rate and is more likely than other forms of breast cancer to recur within five years of the original diagnosis. Black and Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with this type of cancer than white or Asian and Pacific Islander women.   

Environmental Factors

Black women are disproportionately exposed to carcinogens that affect their overall breast health. Carcinogenic ingredients are very prevalent in skin lighteners, hair relaxers, and acrylic nails — all products and treatments that are heavily marketed to Black women and other communities of color. In addition, systemic racism in both housing and government policies has led to communities of color being more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards that may cause cancer, such as toxic waste and industrial pollution. 

Access to Healthcare

Unequal access to healthcare has had a huge effect on BIPOC women and their communities’ relationship to breast cancer. In particular, Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer later on, since as a group they are offered fewer opportunities for screenings and early interventions that could halt the spread of the disease. The five-year relative survival rate for breast cancer for white women is 92 percent, but for Black women, it is only 83 percent.

The Importance of Early Detection

Early detection of breast cancer is crucial, especially if you are in a demographic group that has a higher mortality rate from this disease. Early detection can make the difference between a treatable disease that can eventually be eliminated and a later-stage diagnosis that is more often fatal.

A key preventive tool is breast self-examination. Performing regular breast self-exams can help you become more familiar with your breasts, and will allow you to identify new and unusual lumps or abnormalities that require further examination.

Additionally, all people with breasts should ensure that they are getting regular mammograms if they are at the appropriate age (use the Carbon Health Mammogram Finder to find available providers near you). The American Cancer Society recommends that people age 45 to 54 get yearly mammograms. This recommendation is for people who are considered at average risk — meaning they have no personal history of breast cancer, no family history of breast cancer, no genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer, and no history of chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.

The American Cancer Society also recommends that women over the age of 40 have the option to request a mammogram every year. Early detection can lead to early diagnosis, and especially for women of color diagnosed with TNBC, this  might make the difference between life and death.

After age 55, mammograms can typically be done every two years. If you are at higher risk, your doctor may recommend a different schedule or getting screening MRIs along with your mammograms.

If you are older than 40 and have not yet had a mammogram, you should talk to your healthcare provider about getting one. Carbon Health makes scheduling an appointment easy, with virtual or in-person appointments. 

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS

Bayo Curry-Winchell, MD, is a regional clinical director at Carbon Health and the company’s co-interim director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. She lives and practices medicine in Reno, Nevada.