Breast Cancer Worse for Young Black Women

By: Lindsay Puccio
By: Lindsay Puccio

June 7, 2006

Breast cancer affects millions of American women, but it hits one group especially hard. According to a new study, young African American women are more likely to have a particularly aggressive and deadly form of the disease. A new study suggests that biology may be to blame.

Shirley Hill was shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer.

"I usually get a mammogram every year, so thank God you know I did that," said Hill.

Statistics show African American women have a lower risk of breast cancer than whites, but their survival rate is worse.

"When they do get breast cancer, especially when they are pre-menopausal the cancers are generally more aggressive," said Dr. Alison Estabrook, of St. Luke's Roosevelt.

Doctors aren't sure why, but a new study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association suggests part of the reason is African American women tend to develop a more aggressive type of tumor called a basal-like breast cancer.

39% of pre-menopausal African American women had a basal-like tumor, compared to only 16% of non-black women. Dr. Alison Estabrook said this information should help doctors be more vigilant in screening for and in treating breast cancer in this high risk population.

"I think they are going to be treated, probably because of this study, with chemotherapy more aggressively and maybe even when the cancers are smaller than the cutoff point now," said Dr. Alison Estabrook.

Shirley Hill is now tumor free. "It's like any other disease. Get rid of it, do what you have to do to get rid of it and move on," Hill said.

While this more aggressive tumor helps explain why African American breast cancer victims have a worse prognosis, it's only part of the reason. Experts think lack of access to health care and treatment also plays a role. Currently there are no targeted drug therapies to fight a basal-like tumor.

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