Finding Breast Cancer Early a Lifesaver for All Races

Breast cancer diagnosis early on was less likely among blacks, and their mortality rates were higher

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) No matter who you are, finding and treating breast cancer before it gets too far may save your life. Some races and ethnicities, however, may face a bigger fight against cancer than others.

A new study found that biological differences among races and ethnicities may play a major role in when breast cancer is diagnosed and survival after this diagnosis.

Over the last few decades, overall breast cancer survival rates improved. Black women, however, had a lower survival rate.

Several factors may be contributing to this lower survival rate. Some women many not be following recommendations for clinical breast examinations, breast self-examination or mammogram breast cancer screenings. Some may not be seeking or getting appropriate care if they notice a breast mass, which can indicate breast cancer. Black women may also tend to have more naturally aggressive breast cancer, the authors of this study noted.

Javaid Iqbal, MD, of the Women’s College Research Institute at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, led this study.

“In our study, survival was associated with biological differences in tumor characteristics, but factors such as socioeconomic status, access to and use of health care, adherence to treatment, and [the presence of another chronic disease] might also contribute to breast cancer disparities,” Dr. Iqbal and team wrote.

These researchers followed nearly 400,000 patients with invasive breast cancer for an average of about 40 months. The races and ethnicities of these patients varied.

Dr. Iqbal and colleagues observed that black women were less likely to be diagnosed at the first stage of their cancer than other groups. Among black women, 37 percent were found to have breast cancer in its first phase — compared to about 56 percent of Japanese women and about 51 percent of white women. This meant that more black women were being diagnosed with cancer at later stages — when the cancer can be harder to treat.

These researchers found signs that tumors in black women were biologically more aggressive. Compared to other groups, black women were more likely to have breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body.

Black women were also more likely to have triple-negative cancer, a type of breast cancer that tends to be more aggressive and likely to spread beyond the breast.

Triple-negative breast cancer is curable when caught early on, according to the American Cancer Society. In an editorial about the current study, researchers from the University of Chicago indicated that some black women may not be getting the quality of breast cancer screening that could detect cancer at an early stage.

To catch breast cancer early on, the American Cancer Society advises women to have regular mammography screenings and clinical breast exams that are part of a regular health checkup. The organization also says breast self-examinations may play a role in finding cancer.

Editorial authors Bobby Daly, MD, and Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, MBBS, also wrote that some patients may not be receiving the appropriate, high-quality treatment they need, which can include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“For women with triple-negative disease, access to prompt diagnosis and initiation of chemotherapy can be lifesaving because these tumors [spread] early,” Drs. Daly and Olopade wrote. “Closing the survival gap will only occur once health care leaders initiate system changes that improve access to high-quality care along with a more comprehensive study of breast cancer biology through inclusion of a substantial number of minority patients …”

The study and editorial were published Jan. 13 in JAMA.

Dr. Iqbal received a Canadian graduate scholarship from the Canadian Institute of Health Research. Dr Olopade was member of the medical advisory board for CancerIQ.

Review Date: 
January 13, 2015
Last Updated:
January 15, 2015