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The Oregonian: African Americans are at risk; health coalition works to help

Black women are less likely to get breast cancer, but more likely to die from it
Sunday, September 14, 2008

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES
The Oregonian Staff

Vicki Ivory thought something might be wrong for more than a year. Her breasts were tender and she felt a lump in one.

The 49-year-old would make appointments for a mammogram. And then cancel them. “It was more of a thing of being afraid,” says Ivory, of Portland. “I don’t know why.”

In July she scheduled yet another doctor’s visit. A few minutes later, her phone rang. Alake Patterson of the African American Health Coalition was on the line. She’d gotten Ivory’s name from a list of women who take the coalition’s free exercise programs. Patterson asked Ivory if she’d had a mammogram recently, and if she hadn’t, Patterson would help her get one.

“I said, ‘Wow, this must be a sign,’ ” Ivory says with a laugh. “God was trying to tell me something.”

African American women — in Oregon and nationally — are less likely to get breast cancer than white women, but the most likely of all racial and ethnic groups to die from it. The reasons are two-fold: Black women often get a more aggressive form of breast cancer, and they are more likely to get diagnosed when the cancer is in a later stage.

The African American Health Coalition and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation have partnered to change these statistics through an initiative aimed at getting 100 African American women in Portland a mammogram within a year.

Patterson, who directs the program, gets the word out to African American women that early diagnosis of breast cancer through a mammogram is key to survival. She helps women without insurance get free mammograms through the Oregon Breast and Cervical Cancer Program.

Nathalie Johnson, a surgical oncologist and medical director for Legacy Breast Health Centers, says insurance can be a barrier for African American women. “There’s often a delay in diagnosis and access to care,” she says. “More of us are not insured or are underinsured and that’s a major problem.”

Several other factors lead to the death rate disparity among African American women. Black women don’t like to talk about their breasts, and breast health and other cancers aren’t at the forefront, Johnson says. “In our culture, we’re a little more focused on hypertension and diabetes.”

Also, Johnson says, many African American women rely on prayer to heal them instead of allowing God to use the medical system to heal them.

Studies have also shown that a vitamin D deficiency might be linked to breast cancer and black women in the Northwest are particularly at risk.

Despite the risks, African American women often avoid mammograms because they know women who died shortly after diagnosis, Patterson says. So like Ivory, they would rather not know. But so many die close to their diagnosis because they get diagnosed so late, Patterson says.

Mammograms are one of the most important steps African American women can take to ensure breast cancer survival, says Johnson. So far 67 women have signed on with the coalition to get mammograms. If cancer is found, low-income women can get free treatment through the Oregon Breast and Cervical Cancer Program.

Ivory is glad she overcame her fear and got the screening. Her results came back. She’s cancer free.

“I really do understand being afraid of knowing,” says Ivory. “But if they just take that step like I did, then they can detect it at an early stage. By doing this, it might have saved my life.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones: 503-221-4316; nhannahjones@news.oregonian.com

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