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How Are African American Women Affected by Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in African American women. In 2016, the American Cancer Society estimated that there would be 30,700 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in African American women. While Caucasian women have a slightly higher (approximately 3% more) breast cancer incidence rate, the difference in incidence has been shrinking. Across the U.S., between 2008-2012, rates of breast cancer were higher in African American women than Caucasian women in 7 states, and the rates were not significantly different in 24 states. Although breast cancer risk increases with age, the rate of breast cancer in younger women (under age 45) is higher in African American women than Caucasian women. The median age at which an African American woman with breast cancer is diagnosed is 58, while the median age for a Caucasian woman at diagnosis is 62.1

African American women with breast cancer have a higher mortality rate, meaning they are more likely to die from breast cancer than Caucasian women, and breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in African American women, second to lung cancer. In 2016, the American Cancer Society estimated that 6,310 African American women would die from breast cancer. Since 1990, breast cancer deaths have declined 23% in African American women compared to a 37% decline in Caucasian women. This results in breast cancer mortality rates being 42% higher in African American women compared to white women (between 2008-2012). The difference in mortality rate is believed to be due to several factors, including1:

  • A later stage at diagnosis
  • A higher rate of obesity
  • Higher rates of other health conditions, like diabetes
  • Access to high-quality cancer treatment
  • Differences in characteristics of breast cancer tumor(s)

A later stage at diagnosis of breast cancer in African American women

Breast cancer is more likely to be diagnosed at later stages of the disease in African American women as compared to Caucasian women. This is believed to be due to several factors, including less frequent mammograms and potentially longer times between mammograms, as well as potentially not receiving timely follow-up if a mammogram comes back with an abnormal result. Breast cancer is more easily treated at earlier stages of the disease, and the later stage at diagnosis of breast cancer in African American women contributes to the higher death rate.1,2

More aggressive breast cancer in African American women

African American women are more likely to have breast cancers that are triple negative, meaning the tumors are estrogen receptor negative, progesterone receptor negative, and HER2 negative. Triple-negative breast cancers occur in approximately 22% of all cases in African American women, compared to approximately 10-12% in women of other ethnicities. Women who have cancers that are hormone receptor positive can potentially take hormone therapy, and there are several targeted therapies available for HER2 positive cancers. However, while there are treatments available, there are currently no targeted therapies for triple negative breast cancer.1

Prevention strategies for reducing the risk of breast cancer in African American women

Women of all races can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices, including1,3:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding weight gain
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • Avoiding smoking
Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: December 2018.
  1. Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2016-2018. American Cancer Society. Available at https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/cancer-facts-and-figures-for-african-americans/cancer-facts-and-figures-for-african-americans-2016-2018.pdf. Accessed 7/25/18.
  2. Newman LA. Breast cancer in African-American women. The Oncologist. 2005 Jan;10(1):1-14. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.10-1-1
  3. Black women added to high-risk group for breast cancer. Available at https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/black-women-added-to-high-risk-group. Accessed 7/25/18.