African women and women of African descent are likely to die younger from breast cancer than any other ethnic group, investigations have revealed. Researchers have discovered that a more aggressive, less-responsive to treatment and an uncontrolled form of breast cancer could be found among women of African ancestry. Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer that has spread than their white counterparts.
A new finding on breast cancer incident and survival revealed that out of the 35,000 women of White, Asian and Black ethnic backgrounds in the UK, a staggering 15 percent of Black African women are diagnosed with cancer that have already spread compared to just seven percent of white women, who were mostly to be diagnosed of the disease overall.
At the National Cancer Research Institute’s Cancer conference held last Wednesday in Birmingham, United Kingdom, researches behind the findings confirmed that only about five in ten women diagnosed at the earliest stage survive beyond five years.
Black and White divide
Women get breast cancer when cells in the breast do not grow normally, thus allowing for the formation of a tumour. The most chilling investigation is found in America and Africa where black women survival rate is higher. Researchers struggled to understand why the form of breast cancer among them has a different genetic configuration from white women.
“While most breast tumours in women of European ancestry develop from cells in milk ducts, most tumours in the breasts of African descent are more likely to develop from basal-like cells, resulting in a much more aggressive and often more deadly disease,” said Dr. Funmi Olopade, MD, a physician and professor of medicine and human genetics at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Olapade and team who for the past decade have painstakingly researched the reason behind black and white women cancer disparity, are puzzled that the latest form of cancer drugs cannot cure or treat women of African descent with the form of breast cancer which nearly eighty percent of them are likely to suffer.
The story of Antoinette Richardson, an Africa-American, barely 40, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer couldn’t be more convincing. A mother of two, during a self-diagnostic routine, just by feeling the lump in her breast, she knew something was wrong and after various clinical examinations, she wasn’t going to escape breast cancer. What was found was not just cancer but one not receptive to drugs.
Most of Olapade’s cancer patients in America are between the ages of 20 and 40. Her investigation also took her to Africa where it is the results were more staggering. Her findings in Senegal and Nigeria led her to rule that the phenomenon in West Africa is, in fact, more alarming. Eighty percent of those diagnosed are more likely to share the same form of breast cancer as Antoinette in the United States, an estrogen-receptor-negative form of cancer. Literally, their cancer could not be treated with the available drugs.
“Tumors that are estrogen-receptor positive depend on estrogen to grow. If you withdraw estrogen, the cells die. The estrogen-receptor-negative tumors are estrogen independent. To kill them you have to use chemotherapy, which has all the side effects and may not always work,” said Olapade.
Researchers, however, believe that to effectively fight cancer, it has to be detected it at a very early stage. They advice women to go for voluntary clinical screening.
Ruth Jack, at the Tames Cancer Registry, King’s College London, said: “Some of the variations in how far the disease has progressed by the time it is diagnosed might be explained purely by difference in the awareness of symptoms and the uptake of breast cancer screening between ethnic groups. We urgently need to step up efforts in targeting breast cancer awareness messages towards ethnic minority groups so that, if they are diagnosed, they have a better chance of surviving the disease.
"Understanding why these delays occur through more research and better data on which ethnic groups are taking up invitations for breast cancer screening will be crucial for helping us effectively target these messages.”
Olapade agrees. Access to health facilities is important and women have been urged to consult with the National Cancer Research Institute or their national health services. “If you don’t have access, how can you do prevention? How can you have early detection? We need to advocate for equity — to at least have a more level playing field. We have to rethink how soon and how often we screen for breast cancer in women at risk for the most aggressive type of breast cancer, as well as how we prevent it and how we treat it.”