Black women must recognize breast cancer risk

OPINION - Pink is everywhere. But is it working? And how helpful is this type of awareness for the average woman of color?

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Pink is everywhere. It’s on NFL players’ shoes, their armbands and their gloves. There are pink lemonade Minute Maid, pink ribbons and pink water bottles. Pink. Pink. Pink. All for the sake of breast cancer awareness. But is it working? And how helpful is this type of awareness for the average woman of color?

Despite recommended screenings, the millions of pink ribbons, and the fact that white women develop breast cancer more often than African-American women, we are still dying at a higher rate – 33.8 percent, compared to 25 percent for white women.

Some researchers suggest that African-American women tend to be diagnosed at a later stage, making the cancer more difficult to treat. That may be related to the fact that African-American women also do not obtain mammograms at the same rate as white women. A 2005 survey by the American Cancer Society revealed that only 64.9 percent of African-American women ages 40 and older had a mammogram in the prior two years, compared to 68.1 percent of white women.

There is also a lack of education among certain communities of color. A Boston University research team found that African-American women had a limited understanding of mammograms and their usefulness, suggesting that such views prevented the women from aggressively keeping up with screening.

Research has also shown that women in the low-income bracket often have difficulty fitting the screening test into their busy lives. Among those who scheduled appointments for mammograms, almost half missed the appointments for reasons that included scheduling conflicts, transportation problems, and financial difficulty.

On a regular basis, I encounter well-educated, well-intentioned women of color who still cannot perform a proper breast exam. Among those who perform the exam correctly, there are more questions such as: “Which day of the month is best?” “What should be done if something feels strange?” and “Does this mean I have cancer?” Others in this same group are unsure about when to start mammograms, or have an aversion to the procedure due to discomfort.

Even with the various icons of breast cancer awareness month, I admittedly had to research organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Pink Ribbon International, because I was not aware of their missions, or how those organizations could actually help my individual patients, let alone individual women of color.

If breast cancer organizations are to remain prominently marketed, the message can’t stop there. There are communities of color in this country who are not receiving basic breast cancer education and are not aware of the resources available to them. We can’t expect it to happen on an individual level, because that method has already failed. Even African-American women with access to primary care physicians have still been shown to seek mammography less.

There needs to be a concerted effort to educate, while directly addressing the cultural misconceptions and barriers that exist among the very population of women who are dying from breast cancer the most. Even though women of color have made great strides and advancements in society, our health is one area in which we are falling behind. I charge the “pink ribbon” machine not to forget about us.