Breast cancer mortality rates may be improving, but the gap between black and white women in some cities is growing. Here's what to know about the alarming trend.
This year, 40,450 American women are expected to die of breast cancer, making it the number-two cancer-killer for women in the U.S. What's more startling is that black women make up a disproportionate percentage of that number. In fact, black women die of breast cancer at a higher rate than white women—and the gap is growing in some areas, says a new study conducted by Sinai Urban Health Institute and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) and funded by Avon Foundation for Women. (Here, 9 Must-Know Facts About Breast Cancer.)
The study looked at the gap in mortality rates between races in the country's 50 largest cities between 2005 and 2014. The last four years of that window revealed the mortality rate for breast cancer was 30.7 deaths per 100,000 black women and 21.4 deaths per 100,000 white women.
The wideness of that gap varies by city (you can click around this map from the BCRF to see how your city stacks up). And while 24 of the cities show significant differences between black and white women, it wasn't all bad news. Memphis, Philadelphia, and Boston, for instance, showed improvement, though any disparity is unacceptable, says Marc S. Hurlbert, Ph.D., of the BCRF and one of the study authors.
So what's the reason for the gap? "It's really an access-to-care issue," Hurlbert says. Though biology does play a small role, with black women getting breast cancer earlier and more aggressively, Hurlbert estimates only about 15 percent of the issue is due to genetics. The other 85 percent comes down to access to mammograms and high-quality cancer care, he says. Environmental factors between cities—like the drinking water or air pollution—don't seem to play a role, he says.
"The cities that have better public health or better overall health services, that's where [the disparity is] improving," Hurlbert says. New York City, for instance, has 14 public hospitals and has a much smaller gap than other big cities that have only two or three public hospitals. The hope is that local public health departments will now take this research and address the issue in their cities, he says.
But some of the responsibility falls on women, too. "There are actions women can take on their own to reduce their risk," Hurlbert says. October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a great reminder to check in on your breasts, but it's important to pay attention to 'em year round. If you notice any changes or anything that feels lumpy or painful or just off, have it checked out. You can also sign up for a monthly text reminder through the nonprofit Bright Pink. Finally, plan to make a yearly visit to a mammography center that's accredited by the American College of Radiology by the time you hit 45, though black women should start even earlier. (These lifestyle factors can also help reduce your risk.)
If there had to be a silver lining, it's that breast cancer deaths have been declining overall. Death rates fell almost 2 percent each year from 2004 to 2013. Still, there are plenty of reasons to push for a future where your chances of survival aren't tied to where you live or the color of your skin.