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Researchers say differences at the molecular level may explain the higher deaths for Black women from breast cancer. Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images
  • The number of deaths from breast cancer for Black women is commonly higher than any other group.
  • Researchers say differences at the molecular level in Black women’s bodies may be a factor.
  • The differences involve mechanisms that control cell growth and the way DNA makes repairs.
  • Experts say a lifestyle of a healthy diet and adequate exercise can help reduce the overall chance of breast cancer.

Currently, more than 33,000 African American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

They tend to experience 31 percent higher deaths more commonly than any other racial or ethnic group.

Traditionally, scientists have focused on socioeconomic factors as the primary cause. These factors include:

  • Black women are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, and they are less likely to breastfeed — all risk factors for breast cancer.
  • Black women are less likely to have adequate health insurance or access to healthcare facilities and, because of that, may have less access to screening, follow-up care, and completion of therapy.
  • Black women are more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease.

While this article contains information on scientific findings, it’s important to note that the stress of enduring racism and racist systems may play a part in developing the above conditions beyond genetic factors. Furthermore, enduring racism and racist systems may also play a part in the inequities in healthcare that people face.

In a study published February 8 in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology, researchers looked at differences between Black and white women at a cellular level.

The researchers said they found significant differences in how breast cancer manifests in each group.

“This is an important study in that it attempts to get to the root of the disparity in death rates on a molecular level,” said Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani, the chief of breast oncology at Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida.

She said the medical community has long recognized the disparities in breast cancer between Black and white women.

“We have made considerable progress in treating breast cancer, as evidenced by decreasing mortality rates over the last 20 to 30 years,” Mahtani told Healthline.

“Unfortunately, this progress has not been experienced by all ethnic groups equally, with the gap in incidence and outcome among Black women being particularly substantial. Although socioeconomic and behavioral factors may account for some of these differences, they don’t tell the whole story,” she said.

The new research says molecular changes might contribute to the higher number of deaths.

The study found significant differences between Black and white women in the expression of DNA repair genes in healthy breast tissue and tumors.

Researchers looked at healthy tissues as well as tumor tissues from 185 Black women and compared them to samples from white women.

They reported molecular differences in cellular signals that control how cells grow. They also noted that DNA repairs are expressed differently in Black women.

These differences were in both cancerous and healthy tissue.

“What we’re seeing here is a tangible molecular difference in how these cells repair damaged DNA a critical factor in the development of cancer which affects how cells grow and reproduce in tumors,” Svasti Haricharan, PhD, an assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, California, told Healthline.

These results show that Black women respond to cancer treatment differently than white women, particularly CDK inhibitor treatment.

CDK inhibitors work to stop cell division, a hallmark of cancer. Current guidelines suggest that CDK inhibitors should be used only after seeing progress from standard endocrine therapy.

However, this therapy might come too late for some Black women. The researchers said that Black women might benefit from earlier CDK treatment.

Researchers said their findings are significant because it doesn’t involve waiting for a new drug to be approved. It is simply a matter of changing the timing of the treatment.

Experts say there are ways for women to lower their chance of breast cancer.

“Racial and ethnic differences are not something we have control over, but lifestyle modification is certainly within our control,” said Mahtani. “I advise all my patients to adhere to a healthy diet, exercise, and to drink alcohol in moderation, all of which have been linked to lower rates of breast cancer.”

“Additionally, it is important to recognize the importance of getting screening mammograms, living a healthy lifestyle, and being your advocate in your care,” she said.

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you don’t have to go it alone.

Marianne Sarcich, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, suggests contacting the Chrysalis Initiative. They provide breast cancer coaching and navigation support for Women of Color.

Sarcich said you can use tools to recognize and address racism in cancer care, join a patient community, and view a patient-curated provider directory. All the resources work to reduce inequality in breast cancer care.

“Anyone with a breast health concern, even without a diagnosis of breast cancer, can turn to the Chrysalis Initiative for support,” Sarcich told Healthline.

Sarcich also suggests a new risk-prediction tool.

“It’s called the BWHS (Black Women’s Health Study) Breast Cancer Risk Calculator. It helps your doctor estimate your risk of getting breast cancer over the next 5 years,” she said. “For example, it might help younger Black women decide when to start breast cancer screening. All data for it comes from Black women in the U.S.”