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Why Black women face a triple threat from breast cancer

For Black women in America, a breast cancer diagnosis brings with it a disturbing statistic. Black women are less likely to develop breast cancer but 40 percent more likely to die from it than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yamiche Alcindor reports on the complicated story behind the statistics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For Black women in America, a breast cancer diagnosis brings with it a disturbing statistic. Black women are less likely to develop breast cancer, but 40 percent more likely to die from it than white women. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Yamiche Alcindor examines the complicated story behind the statistics.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Michelle Hawkins and her daughter Mercedes had one thing on their minds: mammograms.

  • Woman:

    No new breast issues?

  • Woman:

    None.

  • Woman:

    Awesome.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The pandemic meant annual appointments had been delayed. For Mercedes, it was her first screening at age 41.

  • Mercedes Hawkins:

    I'm excited, a little anxious, but OK.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    They were at Breast Care for Washington. It's a clinic in the heart of Ward 8, an economically disadvantaged part of Washington, D.C., where 93 percent of residents are Black.

  • Man:

    We ready to ride now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Across town, Bernard Fuller was behind the wheel of a mobile mammography unit. It's another way Breast Care for Washington is trying to boost the number of women getting breast exams.

    The big bus maneuvers around the nation's capital, a city where breast cancer death rates for Black women are among the very highest in the country, 34.3 per 100,000 people.

    On this day, the bus set up in the parking lot of the former providence hospital in Northeast Washington. Black women face a triple threat. They have higher mortality rates, they get breast cancer at younger ages, and have a more aggressive form of the disease.

    The reasons why aren't totally clear, so early diagnosis is key. Mobile units like this one are a valuable tool for the medical community. They help reach women who live in medically underserved areas. And in the middle of a pandemic, they could help catch up on the backlog of patients who have skipped their screenings.

    And as 76-year-old Joyce Terry knows, a year can make all the difference.

  • Joyce Terry:

    Three years ago, I lost my sister, who was my best friend. And she and I always did our tests together.

    My sister's exam came back OK, as mine. During the time that it was to have it done again, she had developed inflammatory breast cancer in the fourth stage. It shows up when it wants to. You know, there's no timeline or no time frame that say you're safe from one year to the other.

    Yamiche Alcindor Even without delaying a mammogram appointment, there can be dire consequences, especially if a cancer is fast-growing.

  • Regina Hampton:

    We, as African American women, get a different type of breast cancer. It's known as a triple-negative breast cancer.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Regina Hampton is a surgeon and co-founder of Breast Care for Washington.

  • Regina Hampton:

    It's not a hormone-responsive breast cancer. Those who have a hormone-responsive cancer can get a hormone type of treatment that they will be on for five years that helps to decrease their risk of developing another breast cancer.

    When you have a triple-negative breast cancer, you're going to get your treatment. Could be surgery with chemotherapy, could be radiation, but then there's no type of triple-negative pill that we can put people on to help keep that cancer away.

  • Woman:

    How you doing? Good to see you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    There was no pill for Donna Hayes. She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer last May. She was just 32 years old. Black women are also more likely to develop breast cancer at a younger age.

  • Donna Hayes:

    So, I started off with a lump in my chest. Like anybody else, I ignored it, didn't think — I'm like, I'm 32. There's no way that this is cancer.

    My doctor told me, you're too young for it to be cancer, so more likely it's a cyst, so I will refer you to ultrasounds. So we got the ultrasound. The technician didn't like what they saw, so they referred me to get a biopsy.

    The biopsy confirmed that it was cancerous. When I got the first diagnosis, I was scared. I didn't want to die. I didn't want to leave my kids and my husband. And so, like, I was just scared.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Her slight delay in seeking treatment was in part because of the pandemic, and in part because of fear and responsibility.

  • Donna Hayes:

    As the Black culture on the whole, we're scared of doctors. You're scared of bad news. You don't want bad news, because you don't know how to handle bad news. So you tend to not go to the doctors. You tend to not go to the dentist.

    You tend to put things on the back burner, especially Black mothers, because they're carrying more so for their kids or the household. So it's like, I can't afford to be sick. I got to make sure everything is straight. So, you tend to forget about yourself.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Hampton says those feelings are common among Black women.

  • Regina Hampton:

    Many of them are single head of household, primary caregivers. You may be working a couple of different jobs. And so their health is just not at the top of the list. They will put their children first, their parents first. They will put everyone else first.

    But, as women — and probably you and I are testament to — we put everybody first.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Over the past year, Hayes juggled raising four kids with courses of chemo, a double mastectomy and radiation.

    Tell me a little bit about the initial doctor saying, you're too young for cancer, it's probably a cyst. When you think about that now, was that helpful, or do you find that to be problematic?

  • Donna Hayes:

    If you're telling your doctor something's wrong, they should automatically just assume you know your body, so they should just help you out. I mean, they shouldn't tell you like, hey, you're too young, this can't happen to you, because, clearly, it can happen to you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Depending on a woman's family history and risk, current guidelines say all women should start mammograms between the ages of 40 and 50.

    But Hampton thinks, for Black women, exams should begin earlier.

  • Regina HamptonDR. REGINA HAMPTON:

    Black women are just at the bottom of the chain, when we really need to have guidelines that really allow those of us who work in disparate communities to be able to make the decision that meets the need of our community, which may be different in my community than it is in — you know, in Des Moines, Iowa.

  • Woman:

    So, you're going to take this hand and put it on here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mother and daughter Michelle and Mercedes Hawkins showed us just how easy a mammogram is.

    This is the only 3-D mammogram technology in this part of the city.

  • Woman:

    Painless Pam. That's what I hear.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, as insured patients, Mercedes and her mom can help fund screenings for women who don't have insurance.

  • Michelle Hawkins:

    Bringing my daughter here today, I thought, was a good thing for us to do this together.

  • Mercedes Hawkins:

    I didn't have any pain. It was painless, actually. I have heard nightmare stories about being lifted off the ground and being pressed so hard and the lack of empathy from the person providing the service.

    And, I mean, she was great. She was very informative while I got it. And she made me super comfortable.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Donna Hayes recently celebrated her last radiation treatment. What got her through the last year? Her supportive partner, who shaved his head in solidarity, her dog Cynnamon, who kept her moving, her kids, and a social media following she built up.

  • Donna Hayes:

    I felt like, especially being young and Black and a female, that it makes it easier to see someone else that looks like you go through and gives you hope. Like, OK, well, this is going to happen to me, then I can too beat it.

    People don't believe it, but, like, it makes me smile to see that little old me can motivate you to care about yourself more.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" in Washington, I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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