The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors living in the U.S. in 2014. According to ACS’s Cancer Facts & Figures for African American’s 2013-2014, approximately 27,060 new breast cancer cases were expected to occur among African American women. Breast cancer incidence rates are higher among white women for most age groups. However, among younger women under age 40, the mortality rate of breast cancer is higher in African Americans than in whites.
Some of the contributing factors that may explain this disparity in death rates include African American women being diagnosed at a later stage; aggressive tumor characteristics that are more common in African American than white women; and, differences in access to and utilization of early detection and treatment.
Still, there is hope for African American breast cancer survivors as they establish their “new normal” and form support systems to empower them along their journey.
In the past, a Black woman diagnosed with breast cancer faced stigma and shame. Today, the tide seems to be turning. Sister Network Inc. (SNI), the only national African American breast cancer survivorship organization in the United States, has been on the frontline educating African American communities about the importance of breast cancer screening and early detection. They have also been instrumental in encouraging the community to “stop the silence” and discuss breast cancer to help dispel some of the fears when a woman is diagnosed.
“Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen the perception of our community slowly change from despair when someone is diagnosed with breast cancer thinking it was a death sentence to now there’s hope,” said Karen E. Jackson, Founder and CEO of Sister’s Network Inc. Jackson, a 21-year breast cancer survivor, started SNI shortly after her diagnoses because she realized the importance of African American women being able to connect with each other no matter what stage they’re in, from being newly diagnosed to being long-term survivors.
Breast cancer survivors can benefit from attending support groups to get emotional support and to help each other stay on track about getting follow-up care post treatment. “So many times when you’re not in a support system, you forget that you’re a survivor. You don’t do your annual check-ups or continue working toward eating a better diet,” said Jackson. “I’ve seen over the years how the members of Sisters Network, and other women who are actively involved in support systems, are living longer.”
Survivors Must Stay Vigilant
Jackson herself had remained vigilant in getting her post-treatment care, and this past spring, she had a reoccurrence in another breast. She says that even as a long-term survivor, she benefited from early detection because her cancer was caught at a very early stage. Sharing her experience is not meant to alarm other survivors that their cancer will come back; instead, Jackson just wants them to remain proactive with their health. “We should never forget that we’ve been touched by breast cancer and that we should do our due diligence to make sure that should we have a second or third bout with cancer, that early detection will still work on our behalf. You need to be very much aware of your body. Knowledge is power. Early detection is not a slogan, it’s for real.”
**Free resources and support for African American breast cancer survivors of all ages and stages of their journey.
Living Beyond Breast Cancer – A website community for African American women affected by breast cancer.
Sisters Network Inc. Chapters – Chapters are organized by breast cancer survivors who are committed to establishing the much needed community breast health services.
Susan G. Komen – Read breast cancer survivor stories or share yours.
Tigerlily Foundation’s Tiger Talk – a social media network for breast cancer survivors
Young Survival Coalition's Navigator Series – This suite of resources supports, empowers and informs young breast cancer survivors at different points of their journey: newly diagnosed, post-treatment, metastatic and long-term.