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Breast Cancer in Black and White

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OCTOBER IS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH. Contact the American Cancer Society for free mammogram screenings during October. More than 40,000 women will die this year from breast cancer. That’s a shocking number, but perhaps more alarming is that African-American women are more likely to develop breast cancer at younger ages and are more likely to die of the disease than white women. Why?

Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD hopes to answer these questions by comparing the genetic profiles of women with breast cancer in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Dr. Olopade, a Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, directs a clinical and laboratory research program in cancer genetics.

Her research, already underway in Chicago and in her native Nigeria, will analyze the genetic material of 100,000 women who developed breast cancer before age 45. Olopade's laboratory was the first to suggest that genetic factors may explain ethnic differences in the biology of breast cancers.

Her findings published in the New England of Medicine describe recurrent mutations of the first known breast cancer gene in extended African-American families with the disease.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among Black women in the U.S., exceeded only by lung cancer. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month campaign's "Pass The Word" program stresses the importance of sharing information about breast health and early detection of breast cancer.

The National Cancer Institute says evidence supports that with early detection and equal health care, that race would not be a major factor. Researchers at the Institute believe it's not a failure of diagnosis because once diagnosed, one in five Black women is likely to get inferior or less than optimal care compared with one in 10 White women.

Studies stress that access to doctors, and lower quality of care are big reasons for the disparity and they are both related to money.

Many factors affect a woman's likelihood of getting breast cancer, among them age, hormonal factors, hereditary, diet, lifestyle and environment. Mammography and self-examination are a woman's best defense against late detection. Breast screening should continue yearly after age 40 throughout a women's life.

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