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Experts say socioeconomic factors and a quicker rate of metastasis are factors in the higher death rate from breast cancer for Black women. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Researchers are studying why Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.
  • In the past, experts have noted that breast cancer tends to be diagnosed later in Black women due to less access to healthcare services.
  • Researchers, however, noted that breast cancer also seems to metastasize more quickly in Black women.
  • Other experts say socioeconomic factors also need to be taken into consideration.

“Sometimes they have been so busy taking care of everybody else, they don’t take care of themselves. Then, when they get to a doctor, not only do they learn they have breast cancer, but there’s a spot on their skin or spine or brain. It’s devastating.”

That’s how breast cancer survivor Kommah McDowell describes the women she tries to help navigate through a difficult diagnosis.

It was 16 years ago when McDowell was told she had breast cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes. She was informed she had a 5 percent chance of survival.

McDowell got a second opinion and started aggressive treatment at City of Hope in Southern California. Now she’s a dedicated patient advocate.

She told Healthline that many of the women she tries to help are Black and from low-income households in communities without much access to healthcare.

There’s a new study that looks at why breast cancer is often far more deadly for Black women than white women.

Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City started with what’s already known about racial disparities in breast cancer. More white women get breast cancer, but Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from it.

Scientists often attribute those stats to Black women getting a diagnosis at a later stage in the disease. But the team of Mount Sinai researchers said that may not be the only explanation.

Their study was released at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology on June 4. The researchers found that Black women have a much higher risk of having their cancer spread, or metastasize. Metastasis is a major cause of death in breast cancer.

The Black women in the Mount Sinai study were nearly six times more likely to develop distant tumors than white women.

The researchers studied 441 women with a diagnosis of breast cancer at Mount Sinai.

They reported that of the small number of participants who developed metastases, nearly 7 percent were Black women compared with just over 1 percent of white women.

“I think our biggest surprise was that the disparity was so large,” said Dr. Julia Blanter, an internal medicine resident at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“We found that this disparity existed despite accounting for late stage diagnosis,” Blanter told Healthline.

“This disparity has been looked at over many decades at this point, and it seems that despite our best efforts it still exists. That means there are other ways, other things to look at to tackle it,” she added.

Dr. Joanne Mortimer, vice chair and a professor at the City of Hope’s Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, told Healthline a lot more information is needed.

“They adjusted for age, race, and stage, but they didn’t adjust for socioeconomic factors… their access to care, insurance, their ability to make appointments all play into the outcomes as well,” Mortimer said.

“This is really important because poverty is a major cause of doing badly with any cancer. And if it’s disproportionate in Black women, which we don’t know from their data, that would contribute as well,” she added.

“Then there’s biologic factors that they did not include in this. They did not include the type of breast cancer,” she said. “African American women in this country have a disproportionate amount of triple-negative breast cancer that has a much worse outcome.”

“So, I think the lack of the type of breast cancer and the lack of socioeconomic data really hamper drawing a lot of conclusions from this paper,” she added.

Blanter said she and her colleagues believe their study should prompt more research.

“We think our study opens the door for a lot of future projects, the most important of which is finding the source of the continued existing disparity,” she said.