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Warning that breast cancer still seen as ‘white woman’s disease’

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Experts have encouraged black women to visit their GP if they notice any changes in their breasts, in the wake of research suggesting breast cancer is often perceived as a “disease of whiteness”.

The call comes after the publication of a study by Queen Mary University of London, which found a relatively low level of awareness about the prevalence of breast cancer among black women.

“There’s good evidence now that young black women get more advanced and difficult to treat breast cancers”

Markus Ornstein

The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, is based on a series of 20 focus groups with 100 black women aged between 25 and 50.

The many of the participants referred to “the whiteness of the media coverage of breast cancer”, noted the researchers.

They highlighted that deaths from breast cancer had declined by 40% since the introduction of new therapies and the national breast screening programme in 1988.

However, despite huge progress in detecting and treating breast cancer, there are still significant disparities in mortality rates, said senior study author Professor Stephen Duffy.

While breast cancer incidence is lower among black women in the UK, survival rates are also lower. Up to the age of 45, a black woman was about as likely as a white woman to develop breast cancer, after which the risk does not increase in the same way as it does in white women, he noted.

But he said black women who did develop it were more likely to do so at a younger age than white women and it was more likely to be oestrogen receptor negative and, therefore, more aggressive.

“We know that black women may come in a little later over concerns about breast cancer”

Lucy Carter

Professor Duffy said: “I think with black women there is a tendency to forget they are at a similar risk of breast cancer, slightly lower compared to white women.

“But it has been noticed they sometimes get a faster growing type of cancer,” he said. “So, it’s all the more important to catch it earlier and get it treated.”

Dr Markus Ornstein, a retired consultant breast surgeon and honorary senior lecturer at Queen Mary, said: “There’s good evidence now that young black women get more advanced and difficult to treat breast cancers.

“Breast cancer is more common in white women certainly, but when it occurs in black women they are younger and tend to have a more aggressive type,” he said, urging women to get checked.

Dr Lucy Carter, a GP in Hackney in East London, highlighted that there were often cultural barriers, including a stigma about cancer, that prevented black women from coming forward.

“We know that black women may come in a little later over concerns about breast cancer, and they may have a more aggressive form – we really do need to pick these cases up earlier,” she said.

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