Breast Cancer and African American Women

Janelle has a family history of breast cancer. Her mother and older sister both had breast cancer in their forties. Her sister survived. Her mother didn't. Now, Janelle worries that she will get breast cancer too. 

Tamika noticed a lump in her right breast several months ago. She thought it would just go away, but it got bigger. She finally went to the doctor and found out that she has breast cancer. She wishes she would have gone to the doctor sooner. 

Even though Leanne is 50, she has never had a mammogram (an x-ray picture of the breasts). She doesn't realize that breast cancer may be caught early with a mammogram. She thinks it might be painful. She doesn't know that many women do not feel any pain during a mammogram. 

Three different women. Three different stories. One disease—breast cancer.  Any woman can get breast cancer. But the Office of Minority Health reports that African American women have the highest breast cancer death rate among all minority women. 

What is Breast Cancer?

Women get breast cancer when cells in the breast don't grow right and a tumor forms. Getting a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) can help find the cancer early. This gives a woman more treatment options and makes it more likely she will survive the cancer.

Risks for Breast Cancer

There are risk factors that make getting breast cancer more likely. Here are some risk factors from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Getting older.
  • Being younger when you first had your menstrual period.
  • Starting menopause at a later age.
  • Being older at the birth of your first child.
  • Never giving birth.
  • Not breastfeeding.
  • Personal history of breast cancer or having breast disease not cancer.
  • Family history of breast cancer (mother, sister, daughter).
  • Treatment with radiation to the breast/chest.
  • Being overweight especially after menopause).
  • Long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen and progesterone combined).
  • Having changes in the breast cancer-related genes.
  • Using birth control pills.
  • Drinking alcohol (more than one drink a day).
  • Not getting regular exercise.

Reducing Risk

Just because you may be at risk doesn't mean you will get breast cancer.  The CDC says these lifestyle changes may help lower your risk of breast cancer.

  • Control your weight and exercise. Make healthy food and drink choices. Stay active. Learn more about keeping a healthy weight and ways to get more active.
  • Know your family history of breast cancer. If you have a mother, sister or daughter with breast cancer, ask your doctor about your risk of getting breast cancer and how you can lower your risk.
  • Find out the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy. Some women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to treat the symptoms of menopause. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of HRT and find out if hormone replacement therapy is right for you.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Not more than one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. One drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor.
  • Get screened for breast cancer regularly.  Exams can help you find cancer early on.
  • Get a mammogram. It is the best way to find out if you have breast cancer.  It can find breast cancer that is too small for you or your doctor to feel. All women starting at age 40 should get a mammogram every one to two years. Talk to your doctor about how often you need a mammogram. If your mother or sister had breast cancer, you may need to start getting mammograms earlier.
  • Have your doctor do a breast exam. Your doctor can check your breasts and underarms for any lumps, nipple discharge, or other changes. The breast exam should be part of a routine check up.
  • Get to know your breasts. You may do monthly breast self-exams to check for any changes in your breasts. If you find a change, see your doctor right away. 

So take your wellness in hand. Talk to your doctor about breast cancer. The more you know, the better off you will be. Start now! 

Click on the links below to learn more. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Office of Minority Health, “Breast Cancer: A Resource Guide for Minority Women,” May, 2005, page 4. 

American Cancer Society's website 

This information is for education only. It is not medical advice. Please ask your doctor for advice about changes that may affect your health.

Reviewed by:

Richard L. Lane MD., Managing Medical Director, KY

Lynette Cooper RN CMCN  Legal Specialist Sr