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Mitchell: Black women still lag behind as breast cancer survivors

Updated: August 26, 2013 4:24PM

She is 37 years old.

She has had eight breast biopsies beginning at age 15.

She has two medium lumps in her breast.

She is unemployed and has no medical benefits.

She is black.

“I’m extremely concerned,” said the woman in an email. “Do you know of any places that can take me for a breast exam?”

Fortunately, I was able to refer the woman to “A Silver Lining,” a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Sandy Goldberg, a Channel 5-NBC veteran health and nutrition contributor, and a breast cancer survivor.

“We fund the entire spectrum of breast health testing from screening mammogram all the way through breast biopsy at our partner hospitals located in the greater Chicagoland area and Rockford,” Goldberg said.

The foundation has helped more than 6,000 women access cost-free screening mammograms and diagnostic evaluations.

But as a black woman who has gone through a breast-cancer battle, I know just the word “biopsy” can freeze some women in their tracks.

While organizations like “A Silver Lining” do an amazing job helping uninsured women get treatment, African-American women are still dying needlessly from a disease they could survive.

“More white women get breast cancer, more black women die from it,” said fashion designer Barbara Bates, repeating a fact that most black cancer survivors have heard too often.

“It is because we are not educated about it,” said Bates, also a breast cancer survivor. “At the end of the day you can go and get a mammogram for free, and get treatment. But you have to get them to walk through the door.”

It is disheartening that despite medical advances in both treatment and diagnosis, women like the one that emailed me are still at a disadvantage when it comes to surviving breast cancer.

According to the latest study, white women with breast cancer lived three years longer than black women. Nearly 70 percent of white women studied lived at least five years after diagnosis. Only 56 percent of black women were still alive five years later.

“Something is going wrong,” Dr. Jeffrey Silber, director of the Center for Outcomes Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said in a New York Times interview.

Silber was the leader of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“These are huge differences. We are getting there too late,” he said.

The gap narrowed considerably when researchers compared black breast cancer patients with white patients who had similar tumors and demographics.

But researchers also found black women were less likely to receive a diagnosis when their cancer was an early stage.

This continued gap means that many black women go into a cancer battle with fear rather than hope.

“This is still an issue, because access is an issue, and access to quality care is an issue,” Goldberg pointed out.

“Where are women supposed to go if you don’t have insurance, and you don’t have money and you don’t qualify for a program?” she asked. “A lot of people have to make a choice between testing and eating and testing and the mortgage.”

While researchers also found that a “significant number of black women also received lower-quality cancer care after diagnosis,” they did not find that the inferior after-care attributed to the survival gap.

That should be unacceptable to all of us.

You never know. One day it could be you walking around with a life-threatening disease and no health insurance.

Bates also is troubled by the lack of knowledge she finds in the black community when it comes to breast cancer.

She is in the midst of producing the second “Knocking Out Breast Cancer” fashion show to raise funds for outreach and education programs at several local hospitals.

“It seems so ridiculous. People want to raise money for treatment, but getting them to walk through the door is a challenge. Education is as important as finding a cure,” Bates said.

Yet the health-care system shouldn’t be rigged against black women.

Studies like this one confirm that we still have a long way to go when it comes to creating an equitable society.

For info on “Knocking Out Breast Cancer,” call (312) 808-8091, or contact “A Silver Lining Foundation,”

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