Beating Breast Cancer Odds

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Violet Ricks is a breast cancer survivor who never considered herself at risk. The 47–year–old African–American Atlanta attorney has five older sisters–all healthy. So when she went to her doctor to find out why she was suffering recurring colds and the flu, the last thing she expected was a breast cancer diagnosis. But the mammogram her physician suggested showed a small tumor. Ricks had a lumpectomy, followed by radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Chances are, you know at least one African–American woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of these women, like Ricks, have won their battle against the disease; many have not.

One out of three Black women diagnosed with breast cancer dies, compared to one in five white women. Because many African–American women wait too late to seek medical attention, the disease has often spread, making treatment more difficult and lowering survival odds.

There are several reasons, according to Rogsburt Phillips, MD, a surgeon who specializes in breast cancer, why many Black women wait to seek treatment:

  1. Fear of losing their femininity if a breast is removed.
    A mastectomy — breast removal — may not be necessary. If the disease has not spread, a small tumor and the surrounding tissue may be removed by a lumpectomy, a procedure that leaves the breast intact. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be given to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  2. Belief in popular myths about the causes of cancer.
    • high doses of x–rays can cause cancer, so mammograms must cause cancer
    • women with small breasts or large breasts are not at risk
    • a blow to the breast causes cancer
    • cancer spreads during surgery when the air hits it
    • consuming a lot of caffeine causes cancer
    All of these beliefs are false.
  3. Loss of control–many Black women heads of households cannot take time off for sickness. With early diagnosis and treatment, many women return to their normal activities in a relatively short time.
  4. Lack of awareness about who gets breast cancer.
    Many African–American women think breast cancer primarily affects white women; others think it is inherited. All women are at risk for breast cancer, and approximately 80 percent of those who get it have no family history of the disease. African–American women have lower incidence of breast cancer, but their death rate is much higher.
  5. 5. Lack of knowledge about how cancer develops.
    Cancer occurs when cells multiply uncontrollably and form masses called tumors. Many women do not understand that breast cancer grows slowly and may have been developing for some time before it is large enough to be felt. A yearly mammogram–an x–ray of the breast–can detect tiny tumors in their early stages before they can be felt. When detected early, cancer can often be cured.
  6. Cost. For women of color who cannot afford an annual mammogram, many organizations sponsor free or low–cost mammograms. For more information, call the National Cancer Institute.
  7. Because breast cancer develops earlier in Black women, the American Cancer Society recommends regular mammograms beginning at age 30, or at 25 if there’s a family history of the disease. Every woman should perform breast self–exams regularly and be on the alert for these symptoms:
    • lump in the breast (keep in mind that many lumps are benign (not cancerous), but they should still be checked by a physician)
    • inverted nipple
    • dimpling of the skin on the breast
    • nipple discharge

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, follow Violet Ricks’ advice: Ask questions and take notes during medical appointments, get referrals and learn as much as possible about the disease. Ultimately, she says, every woman is in charge of her own health.

"Breast cancer". For many women, there are no two scarier words. And for African–American women — who are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women — that fear is even greater. Often, Black women delay a visit to their doctor’s office; by then the cancer has spread and is more difficult to treat. As a result, one in three African–American women with breast cancer dies.

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0 Alena 2010-02-17 00:07
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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