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Breast Cancer: Black Women Less Likely to Get It, More Likely to Die from It

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By Julianne Malveaux

NNPA Columnist


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Millions of women are sporting pink ribbon pins in support of a month when organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation fundraise and galvanize people around the quest for a cure for breast cancer.  They are right to raise awareness - more than 184,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States in 2008, and more than 40,000 will die from breast cancer.

While African-American women are less likely than White women to get breast cancer, we are more likely to die from it. The morbidity rate for White women is 9.4 per 100,000, compared to 15.4 per 100,000 for African-American women. 

Additionally, African-American women often are diagnosed with breast cancer when they are younger, and when African-American women under 55 are diagnosed with breast cancer; it is more likely to have deadlier effects.  Researchers are studying the reasons why African-American women are so much more vulnerable than other women are to breast cancer. But the findings make it important for African-American women to get regular mammograms and to deal with other aspects of our health.

Whenever there are health awareness weeks or months, whether they are for breast cancer, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, or another cause, I crave attention to the broader issue of health care and health access. We can take a slice out of the health care challenge by focusing, in October, on breast cancer, but the fact is that part of African-American women's increased vulnerability to breast cancer is a result of differential access to health care and health services. 

Too many African-Americans lack health insurance. Too many wear the stress of racism in poor eating and living habits, and it shows up with obesity, high blood pressure, and the higher incidence of other diseases in our community. 

African-American women are more likely than any other population, in 2008, to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. When another population was most likely to be diagnosed, HIV/AIDS awareness garnered headlines. Now, too many are silent about this disease, unless they are talking about the international incidence of HIV/AIDS.

It is not clear why our nation has not galvanized around the health care issue. To be sure, both presidential candidates have ideas about health insurance and health care; their plans are divergent. In my humble opinion, Hillary Rodham Clinton had one of the best health care plans we've seen in a long time, reflective of the work she has spent on health care since she worked on it as First Lady in the Clinton Administration. 

Senators Obama and McCain would be advised to review her plan and incorporate aspects of it into their own work. Somehow, every American must have access to preventive health care, and protection from bankruptcy when they are diagnosed with expensive diseases. And somehow, as we raise awareness bout breast cancer, we must also raise awareness about the ways breast cancer incidence is intertwined with the status of our health care system.

Breast cancer awareness has an international dimension. Hala Moddelmog, President of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, indicates that 10 million people will die in the next 25 years absent intervention around breast cancer. Last year, the Komen organization held a global advocacy summit in Hungary, and announced pilot programs in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.  This month, they sent delegations to Ghana and Tanzania. 

It is important to note that for all the challenges women face with breast cancer in the United States, health care access is even more limited in developing countries.  The Komen organization is to be commended for their work in taking breast cancer global.

Back at home, though, the health care disparities that riddle our system are as present in the realm of breast cancer and in other areas.  Sisters must be among those sporting pink ribbons, but beyond the pink ribbons, we must all be passionate advocates for increased health care access, especially in the African-American community.


Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women. She can be reached at presoffice@bennett.edu.


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