Breast cancer survivor stresses need for addressing racial disparities
While breast cancer mortality rates have declined over the past three decades, deaths remain high among African American women with the disease, at a startling 42% higher incidence than among Caucasians.
According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, African American women have a 31% breast cancer mortality rate, higher than for any other U.S. racial or ethnic group, and are also more likely to develop cancer under age 45 and to have a diagnosis of more aggressive triple-negative (HER2 negative) or inflammatory types.
Health care disparities have long existed when it comes to individuals of color. Bias, living in areas farther from health care facilities, having less or no insurance coverage, less access to nutritious foods, lack of transportation or family or work priorities — all are factors in delaying or not receiving crucial preventative care and/or treatment.
Antoiwana Williams, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Services at UW-La Crosse, whose mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor, was diligent about getting a yearly mammogram and checking her breasts every month. When she noticed a change in her breast in 2019 she decided to wait until her scheduled mammogram to have it examined. She had to cancel the appointment and kept intending to reschedule, but it wasn’t until a coworker struck up a discussion about breast cancer that Williams put in a call.
After Christmas, Williams was biopsied and several days later, she learned she had stage one, triple-positive breast cancer.
Williams’ oncologist at Mayo Clinic Health System, Dr. Paula Gill, says William’s type of cancer can form very quickly, “in a way, coming out of nowhere.” Gone undetected, triple-positive breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes and other areas of the body, advancing rapidly.
Williams underwent a year of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. “The journey was a struggle,” she says. “Fortunately I had family support, community support, my whole entire office supported me. I had the privilege to work virtually when I felt good, and I took off the days I didn’t.”
The Coulee Region, Williams says, has an accessible and supportive network for individuals with breast cancer, including mobile mammogram services and assistance with medical fees. Williams says the Mayo breast cancer team — including Dr. Richard Ellis, radiology, and cancer center staff who “put their own lives on the line every day during the pandemic to provide the best treatment possible for all their patients” — and the community at large were essential in her recovery.
Williams says she “embraced” being bald due to her treatment, as it was a visual way to normalize cancer.
“I wanted to create a greater awareness,” Williams says. “I’m open about my breast cancer journey because I don’t want anyone who can help prevent this to go through it if they can avoid it.”
Williams especially wants to help women of color advocate for their health and receive top care, noting “We are disproportionately impacted and we need to change that.” Access, poor insurance, religion, or fear of being a burden to their family are possible reasons Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, Williams says, as is delayed diagnosis.
“I hear some of the leaders at Mayo saying, ‘Let’s just get them (into treatment).’ There are resources out there to help with this disease. The health care is the biggest piece that we need to address as a community, as a country, as a state, to change the outcome of these diagnoses that (maybe) curable.”
Her mother, Cynthia Bergeron has additional thoughts on the disparities in breast cancer outcomes for Black women, noting they often “put themselves on the back burner” and the treatment plans are not always up to the same standards as those received by their white counterparts.
“Either we quit because the (treatment) is too rough, we’re diagnosed too late, or we reach the decision we need to do what we need to do for our families,” Bergeron says. “I said (to my oncologist) ‘I want the Caucasian treatment plan.’”
Excerpted from La Crosse Tribune