Black Women Face Difficult Odds Dealing With Breast Cancer

To fight the disease, black women need awareness, treatment and technology.

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Fifth annual American Cancer Society 5K Walk to raise funds to fight breast cancer, Oct. 28, 2001, in Pasadena, Calif.

David McNew/Getty Images

In September 2012, Sabrina Fields was in the middle of one of those moments where everything—work, love life, family, future—seemed to be assured. Even ideal.

Then 32, Fields had just finished a master’s degree while working full time. She was a highly valued employee in the finance division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Her cohort of friends, including a twin sister, often turned to her for advice, and the man she loved had just proposed. It seemed like the right time to reward herself with a weekend trip to homecoming at her alma mater, Hampton University.

She bought a new dress for the occasion and then set out on the obligatory search for the elusive, perfect strapless bra—something both pretty and capable of maintaining order. A self-described curvy girl, Fields walked into one of those lingerie shops where the staff know women’s figures, the help comes inside the dressing room and it is very hands-on.

“We were in the dressing room, and the saleswoman just kind of casually mentioned my left breast seemed larger than my right,” says Fields. “She said that’s perfectly normal. But in the back of my mind I remember saying, ‘Let me monitor this. Something may be really wrong.’”

That turned out to be a fateful conversation.

In the United States, the once-dense fog of shame and silence around breast cancer has given way to a sort of well-known narrative. A woman—frequently white, usually age 50 or older—discovers a lump and fears that the growth is cancer and potentially a death sentence. Then there’s a diagnosis and an often grueling course of treatment for breast cancer, which, if caught early, has one of cancer’s highest survival rates.

Then—in one version of the familiar story—there is the victory lap taken by a woman who stared down, battled or somehow bested cancer.

But in reality, breast cancer can develop in different forms and present an array of symptoms and—depending on when the disease is detected and how it is treated—a list of factors too long and sometimes too mysterious to quantify, which can still claim some women’s lives. And it’s a disease with which white women are far more likely to be diagnosed, but from which black women are far more likely to die.

Racial Survival Gap

In December 2013, the New York Times turned its spotlight on Memphis, Tenn., laying bare the story of a community where some combination of poverty, limited access to health care, cultural barriers, fear and superstition combines to create the largest racial breast-cancer-survival gap in the entire country.

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