Black women are still not getting the message that we have a much greater chance of surviving and thriving after a cancer diagnosis when the disease is detected early. New research, published on July 1 in the Journal of Women’s Health and conducted primarily at Charles Drew University of Medicine in Los Angeles, reports that black women are less likely to perceive the life-sparing benefits of early screening for breast, colorectal and cervical cancer.
Challenging this erroneous information may play an important role in increasing cancer survival rates for black women. The latest research shows that black women have lower five-year survival rates than white women for several types of cancer. There’s a great concern that not knowing the value of early cancer diagnosis and treatment contributes to these low survival rates.
Working with community organizations, researchers from Drew and the University of California at Los Angeles surveyed 513 black women to find out what they thought about cancer screening, risk behaviors, and related knowledge and attitudes. The women were identified through 11 churches in a largely black community in South Los Angeles, with some of the highest cancer mortality rates in California.
Due, in part, to the success of breast cancer awareness campaigns, 74 percent of the women in the study believed their chances for survival were improved by the early detection of breast cancer, but only 51 percent agreed that early detection was important for colorectal cancer. In addition, just 52 percent knew that early detection was life-saving in cases of cervical cancer.
The study also held helpful information for physicians. Women whose doctors had discussed cancer risk with them had a much greater knowledge of the value of early detection.
Protecting Yourself with Early Detection
Just how important is early detection? Survival rates for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer range for 84 percent to 93 percent if the cancer is detected in its earliest stages. Early detection is easy, highly accurate and affordable thanks to Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act), so be sure to keep up with these screenings:
- Pap and HPV Tests for Cervical Cancer: The American Cancer Society (ACS) advises that all women should be screened from ages 21 to 65 every three years. (Low risk women ages 30 to 65 can switch to Pap alone every five years.) More frequent tests are needed for women at risk or with a history of a pre-cancerous condition.
There’s also one very important warning for black women older than 65. While the ACS says most women can stop getting Pap smears after age 65, recent research shows that black women over 65 have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer in their later years, so getting screened every three to five years may still be a good practice.
- Mammograms. Recent controversies over how often women should be screened for breast cancer have only confused women, while possibly putting our health at risk. To keep it simple, the ACS recommends that every woman older than 40 get a mammogram once a year.
The problem with these national screening guidelines is that they do not consider black women’s elevated risk of early (age 32 or so), aggressive breast cancer. To take charge of your risk, Funmi Olapade, MD, one of leading experts in breast cancer in black women, recommends that your best defense is to know your personal risks. She suggests you get to know your breasts through personal exams in your late 20s or 30s and watch for pain, lumps or changes in your skin texture. Look at your family history. You are at a higher risk if a mother, aunt, sister or grandmother had breast cancer. If you have a family risk, you should discuss it with a breast cancer specialist and get more frequent mammograms. You should also learn the symptoms of breast cancer.
- Colonoscopy: The general ACS recommendation is that everyone should get their first colonoscopy at 50. Your doctor will tell you if you need to come in every five years or ten years, based on your test results.
A cancer diagnosis can be frightening, but your absolute best defense against the disease is finding it early and getting the best treatment available