I-TEAM: Exploring the effects of breast cancer in women of color

Published: May. 3, 2021 at 7:23 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Chances are you know someone who’s battled or is battling breast cancer. But when it comes to her chance of survival an all-new I-TEAM investigation finds that could depend on the color of her skin.

One in eight women will get breast cancer in her life – one in eight. That goes for both white women and black women. CDC data shows it happens at the same rate but death rates? The I-TEAM found that data tells a much different story especially when it comes to black women in our area.

As a working mom, Angela Prince always put everyone else first.

“I was busy, you know,” she said. “I would bus my kids around all over the place and make sure they’re fine. Make sure my husband’s fine. Still go home and take care of everything.”

Everything it seems, but herself even when she found a lump in her right breast.

“So I was like, it’s probably nothing. And I was just too busy to make a doctor’s appointment, which is crazy, right?” she said.

Sure, she sees that’s crazy now, but at the time, she didn’t think she had time until she was let go at work.

“Well, I guess I have time to go to the hospital. So I made an appointment,” she said.

Turns out the lump now the size of an orange wasn’t “nothing.” It was breast cancer, and it was pretty advanced.

“It’s stage four. It spread to my lungs. It was in my lymph nodes,” she said.

Treatment had to be aggressive. Angela had a double mastectomy followed by radiation and six rounds of chemotherapy.

“I don’t know if you notice but I love my hair,” she said. “And that was my signature to have big curly hair all the time. And when it started falling out…I’m sorry. I’m tearing up. I lost a part of myself. And you know, it’s so superficial. Hair is, right?”

When it was all gone, she decided not to wear a wig and to make her bald head her new signature.

I was 43 at the time. I was pretty young to get breast cancer,” she said.

Not according to a study at UNC Chapel Hill. Researchers found a pattern with breast cancer where white patients peak in their 60s but non-white patients peak in their 40s.

“We have some of the worst some of the highest death rates from breast cancer right here in this region,” said Dr. Michelle Lee.

That’s why Dr. Michelle Lee says she moved to Augusta last year to head up Breast Imaging at AU.

“In most women across the country, the number one killer cancer killer is lung cancer. Not here and not if you’re black. If you’re a black woman in Augusta, your number one cause of cancer death is breast cancer. We need to do something about that,” she said.

Black women already face an uphill breast cancer battle. The I-TEAM analyzed CDC data and found, their mortality rate is 40 percent higher than white women. On top of that, the American Cancer Society says the most deadly of all breast cancers is triple negative breast cancer. It happens to be more common in women “younger than age 40 who are African American.”

So the I-TEAM started digging into treatment options and found just last April the FDA gave accelerated approval to a new drug.

Trodelvy’s clinical trial looks promising but this stands out. 76 percent of patients involved in the clinical trial were white. Only seven percent were noted as being “Black or African American.” We kept digging and found the same goes for all clinical trials no matter the drug. According to the FDA, only eight percent of all patients in all trials in 2020 were black. From 2015-2019 just seven percent were black.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lee says breast cancer screening requirements rely on data that are also compiled from a pool of mostly white patients.

“So, in effect, the United States Preventive Service Task Force recommendations are kind of racist, right? They’re not taking into account how black women present versus white,” she said.

We found Harvard researchers take that a step further noting age-based screening guidelines that do not account for race can adversely affect people of color. They suggest we consider “lowering the screening age for nonwhite groups.”

“I cry every day at my job. And I’m pretty stoic. But when you see a young woman come in pregnant, huge cancer in her breast. It’s just, it’s too much for anyone. That’s really sad,” she said.

And this happens a lot?

“Yeah,” she said.

But it doesn’t have to keep happening.

“It could’ve, you know, spread everywhere and I could have died,” said Prince.

When Angela’s hair started to grow back her storm ended in a rainbow of pinks, purples, blues, and reds. A bold reminder to other busy women watching right now you’re never too busy to take care of yourself.

“Somebody needs to hear this message. And I don’t know who it is, and if it saves one person, then I’ve done my job,” she said.

It’s been five years and Angela still has a port in her chest where she gets medicine once every three weeks or so. She also says she has side effects from the chemo but other than that she’s feeling fine. Which is great to hear and a reminder if you have insurance it’s supposed to completely cover your mammogram.

If you don’t have insurance Dr. Lee says AU has programs to help you get one for free. You can also get a free risk evaluation to see at what age you need to start screenings. Some women who are high risk need to start in their 20s so it’s important you know when the time is right for you. It could save your life.

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