Breast Cancer More Aggressive in African American Women

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A large study (more than 170,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States participated) confirms the results of earlier studies. Breast cancer in African American women is typically more aggressive than breast cancer in white women. Compared to white women, breast cancer in African American women tends to be:

  • diagnosed at a younger age
  • more advanced at diagnosis
  • more likely to be fatal at an earlier age

The results also show that African American women are more likely to have estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer.

Normal breast cells have hormone receptors for estrogen and progesterone. These hormones influence the health and function of a normal breast. If breast cells turn cancerous, some still have hormone receptors. Others lose this feature. The cancer cells without receptors are called hormone-receptor-negative. Hormone-receptor-negative breast cancers are typically more aggressive and harder to treat. Hormonal therapy often can successfully treat hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. But hormonal therapy doesn't affect hormone-receptor-negative cancers.

Differences in breast cancer between African American women and white women are probably due to genetic differences. Doctors use the term "biologically different" to describe genetic differences in cancers. Other research has suggested that some of the differences in cancers between African American women and white women could be due to different quality medical care received by women of various races. Still, genetic differences explain most of the cancer differences.

EVERY woman with breast cancer — no matter her age, height, weight, ethnicity, or medical history — is unique. And the same is true of every breast cancer. The challenge is to better understand the differences in breast cancer biology. Researchers hope to develop tests that can give us a fuller, more complete picture of a cancer's genetic makeup. Then treatments can be prescribed that are personalized for each cancer.

Until that time, screening is a good place to start eliminating the differences. Breast cancer that is diagnosed early is typically easier to treat and offers the best survival chances.

Regular screening for breast cancer, including breast self-exam and mammograms, is important for everyone. When you have a mammogram, make sure your doctor tells you about the results. If you don't hear something, call the office. If you're not sure what the results mean, ask your doctor right away. If cost or scheduling problems are making it hard for you to schedule a mammogram or a follow-up visit with your doctor, ask for help. It's YOUR health and YOUR future and you deserve the best care possible.

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