Almost 34,000 Black women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year.

Breast cancer is more likely to be metastatic (spread to other parts of the body) in Black women than in white women. Black women experience higher numbers of an aggressive subtype of cancer, and it’s often more advanced when diagnosed.

Socioeconomic factors are part of the cause. Other factors include genetics and environmental toxins.

Language matters

We use “women” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with how your body responds to this disease. Your doctor can better help you understand how your specific circumstances will translate into diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment.

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Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for Black women.

Statistically, Black women are more likely than non-Black women to live with other conditions that increase the chance of breast cancer, such as:

  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • heart disease

Black women are also less likely to breastfeed, which is protective against breast cancer. A 2017 analysis found that breastfeeding decreases the risk of triple-negative breast cancer, particularly for younger Black women.

Additionally, Black women are more likely to experience stress from racism. Chronic stress that affects health is called allostatic load, and it can impact breast cancer by contributing to:

  • more aggressive tumors
  • advanced stage at diagnosis
  • reduced quality of life

Environmental exposures may increase the chance of breast cancer in some women. Beauty products are a source of this type of exposure because of the chemicals they contain. Some products that are marketed toward Black women have more of these chemicals.

It’s important to consult a healthcare professional if you notice any symptoms of breast cancer. The sooner treatment begins, the more successful it can be.

Symptoms include:

  • lumps
  • darkening breast skin
  • swelling
  • pain
  • skin dimpling
  • discharge
  • nipple retraction
  • redness
  • swollen lymph nodes under your arms

Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Metastasized breast cancer can cause symptoms in different areas of the body, most commonly the brain, liver, lungs, and bone. Symptoms include:

  • cough
  • back pain
  • loss of balance
  • joint pain
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • jaundice
  • vision problems
  • loss of appetite
  • seizures
  • numbness or weakness
  • urination issues

Some beauty products contain ingredients that can increase a person’s chance of developing breast cancer. Some of the most dangerous ingredients are found in products marketed to Black women, such as:

  • Skin lighteners. These products often contain the endocrine disruptor hydroquinone and sometimes mercury.
  • Hair relaxers. These hair treatments contains high pH chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens.
  • Fragrance. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is an endocrine disrupter commonly found in fragrances. Phthalates are connected to breast cancer. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that Black and Hispanic women have almost double the amount of DEP in their urine compared to white and Asian women.
  • Nail products. Acrylic nail treatments pose a risk to both the nail technician and the client from exposure to carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Breast Cancer Prevention Partners offers tips on how to reduce exposure to personal care products that increase the chance of breast cancer. For example, they suggest avoiding products that list “fragrance” or “parfum” as an ingredient. They also offer a glossary of breast cancer exposures that lists environmental factors to avoid.

According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Black women generally have a 41 percent higher chance of dying from breast cancer than white women. And Black women under 50 years old have double the chance of dying from the disease compared to white women in the same age range.

About 15 percent of invasive breast cancer cases are triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). This type of cancer is more aggressive and often more advanced when diagnosed. It’s more common in women who are:

  • Black
  • Hispanic
  • younger than 40 years old

It also occurs more often in women who have inherited mutations in the BRCA1 gene.

Researchers estimate that about 40 percent of the racial differences between Black and white women in cancer subtype are because of inherited gene mutations.

A 2016 study in South Carolina found that Black women are more likely to have tumors that are hormone receptor-negative. This type of tumor is associated with a worse prognosis.

Because TNBC occurs in women who are younger than the age when regular screening starts, this cancer is more likely to be missed in its early stages.

There are not as many effective treatments for TNBC as for other types of breast cancer. Moreover, Black and Hispanic people are less likely to be enrolled in clinical trials that study breast cancer outcomes. This makes it hard to determine how research findings apply to them.

In addition, Black women are less likely to have access to adequate healthcare facilities. This can impact screening, follow-up care, and therapy completion.

Communication issues may also play a role. A 2018 study of women with hormone receptor-positive cancer found that Black women were less likely to participate in treatment. This was because they perceived the cancer recurrence rate as low and were not able to take part in decision making about their treatment.

Breast cancer studies show that Black women have a lower 5-year survival rate of 71.1 percent compared to white women at 82.4 percent.

Metastatic breast cancer is still treatable but has a lower 5-year survival rate.

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for metastasized breast cancer based on women diagnosed between 2011 and 2017 is around 29 percent.

Black women are more likely to receive a diagnosis of TNBC than white women. TNBC is harder to treat and occurs more often in women younger than the age at which screening usually starts.

The difference in diagnosis rates is partly because of genetics.

Another possible factor is environmental exposure to toxins such as those found in beauty products, which can disrupt hormones. Other factors include breastfeeding history and health conditions such as obesity.

Doctors can treat metastatic breast cancer, but it’s much easier when the cancer is found early. Regular self-exams and communication with healthcare professionals increase the chance of early detection and successful treatment.

The American Cancer Society has more information about cancer facts and statistics for Black people in the United States.