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Tackling Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Treatment and Survival

Skye D.
Pink Ribbons in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for women in the United States. But your odds of dying from the disease vary greatly based on your race and ethnicity. African-American women in the United States are more likely to have aggressive forms of breast cancer - and less likely to catch the disease in an early stage.

Dr. Alice Yan, a professor at the Joseph Zilber School of Public Health at UW-Milwaukee, is hoping to change that. Yan is leading two separate research projects that seek to identify some of the causes of this disparity and how to fix them. 

"Compared to Hispanic and white women, black women have a 41% higher breast cancer death rate, and also their five year survival rate is 23% lower than their white counterparts," she explains. "They are more likely to have 'triple negative' breast cancer which has the worst outcome of all subtypes."

Yan continues, "I think there are statistics to support that young (under the age of 45), [African-American] women have breast cancer rates that are two times higher than white women of the same age...  they are also three times as likely to die from breast cancer as white women of the same age."

"A lot of people are still studying the reason why," she says. "Our hypothesis is that it has a lot to do with social factors, the neighborhoods the women live in, the high rate of obesity and their family histories and also their access to care, and quality of care probably contribute to their late diagnosis."

Yan's research is exploring these reasons why by asking the women, themselves. "Instead of looking at the statistics, we wanted to establish partnership teams with young patients and their family members and health care providers."

"So we worked together... to identify questions that are most relevant to them through a series of conversations and interactive storytelling event," she explains. "In the end [of the one year project], we will engage the patients to share their personal stories that are most relevant to their diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. And we hope at the end that there would be something for the researchers to really focus on as a follow up."

Yan also has an ongoing study looking at how exercise benefits the quality of life for African-American breast cancer survivors

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.