October 2013 - Breast Cancer and Black Women: The Hope and Promise of Health Care Reform

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A hearing specialist once told me that sounds have images and memories associated with them.  You hear something and you immediately make an association with a memory—good or bad; happy or sad; scared or safe.  When you cannot associate the sound with something you’re familiar with, it causes you to panic because you don’t know what’s causing the sound or what the outcome of the sound will be. Thus the term “strange noise”.   And so it seems to be when the words “health care reform” are mentioned.  Memories—good and bad; happy and sad; scared and safe; some people panic at the mere mention of the words. By now, we’ve all seen the protesters, heard the arguments—pro and con-- and most of us have chosen sides.

But when it comes to breast cancer and Black women, I choose the side of whatever it takes to improve my sisters’ survival. Recent figures from the American Cancer Society indicate that African-American women have a 41% higher death rate than white women from breast cancer.1 The fact that Black women continue to have a higher death rate from breast cancer is not solely because they detect the disease at a later stage (although that happens more often than it should), but because many cannot afford the treatment for the disease once they are diagnosed. They can’t afford the inconvenience and financial burden that occurs after they get the diagnosis—“you have breast cancer”. Following the available “free or low cost” mammogram, many Black women cannot afford the bills from surgery, chemo and radiation treatment; they can’t afford to be off from work during treatment; in addition to worrying about whether they’ll live, they worry about how they’ll pay for treatment and still be able to cover their everyday living expenses; they worry about who will care for their children if they don’t make it and how they’ll care for their children if they do. They literally cannot afford to be sick.  It is an awful lot to ask of any human being.  No, it’s too much to ask.

Now, imagine you had a chance to change the course of these women’s lives for the better. Imagine if these same women did not have to worry about how the bills for their treatment would be paid.  Imagine if they only had to focus on healing themselves and holding their family together.  Imagine that they would survive to be loving mothers to their children and productive citizens.  Imagine that the fear of getting treatment and facing financial ruin was a thing of the past.  Imagine that women did not have to choose between saving their money to care for their families and saving their lives.  Imagine that as a result of having no financial barriers to care, black women had the same chance of surviving breast cancer as all other women.

Now that you can imagine a level playing field when it comes to Black women’s breast cancer survival, imagine affordable health care for all Americans. Visualize the hope and the promise of health care reform. Imagine the possibilities….

With you on your journey to wellness...
Dr. Mary S. Harris

1American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures for African-Americans, 2013-2014. p. 10.

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