Improving Blacks' Breast Cancer Survival

Black women with breast cancer have shorter survival spans than white women, and this may be related to other medical conditions, a new study suggests.

The study appears in The Journal of the American Medical Association. It included about 900 black and white women with breast cancer.

Over 10 years, more black women than whites died — and not just from breast cancer. Other health problems — especially diabetes and high blood pressure — seemed to contribute to much of the black-white survival gap.

In fact, most black patients died of health problems unrelated to cancer, the study shows.

The researchers included C. Martin Tammemagi, PhD, of Canada’s Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Black-White Breast Cancer Survival

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for American women (except for nonmelanoma skin cancer).

In the U.S., breast cancer is most often seen in white women. But black women are more likely to die of the disease.

“Although breast cancer survival has improved over the last 30 years, disparities in breast cancer survival between blacks and whites have not declined and remain sizeable,” write the researchers.

From 1995-2002, nearly 90 percent of white breast cancer patients survived for at least five years. That percentage was smaller for blacks (75 percent), the researchers note.

The reasons for ethnic gaps in breast cancer survival aren’t fully understood yet.

Other studies have shown that black women are often diagnosed at later, harder-to-treat stages of breast cancer and have more aggressive breast cancers. Black women may also face problems getting top-quality medical care. Other researchers have suggested that genetics could also be a factor.

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Women’s Bigger Health Picture

Many factors can affect who gets cancer, what type of cancer they get, and how they fare. Women of all backgrounds are advised to see a doctor for any breast health concerns and to follow recommended cancer screening guidelines.

The new study didn’t just look at breast cancer alone. It also tracked other health problems.

The study included 264 black and 642 white patients. All were women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer from 1985-1990 and were treated at Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System.

The women were followed for an average of 10 years. During that time, 25 percent of black patients (64 women) died of breast cancer and 37 percent (95 patients) died of other causes.

By comparison, 18 percent of white women (115 patients) died of breast cancer and 32 percent (202 women) died of other causes.

Fewer American Women Dying of Breast Cancer

Survival Worse for Blacks

The study’s key findings include:

—Black women were more likely to die of breast cancer and other conditions than white women.

—Health problems unrelated to cancer accounted for most deaths among black breast cancer patients.

Diabetes and high blood pressure were two big reasons for the gap in deaths unrelated to cancer, the researchers note.

Controlling such illnesses could help more black women survive breast cancer, they write.

The researchers also call for more studies to check the results in other groups of black and white breast cancer patients.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Tammemagi, C. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct. 12, 2005; vol 294: pp 1765-1772. WebMD Medical News: “Breast Cancer: Explaining Ethnic Differences.” WebMD Medical News: “Genes: Key to Advanced Breast Cancer in Blacks?” News release, JAMA/Archives.