October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and Detroit is gearing up to paint the city pink. Organizations are working hard to raise awareness, educate and overcome stigmas surrounding the illness.
Statistics show that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. In Michigan, 9,000 new cases of breast cancer were reported in 2019 with 45 percent of those women residing in Metro Detroit. While the statistics on breast cancer are staggering, for Black women, the numbers are even more frightening.
“Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths for African American women,” Melanie Williams-Bowers, a spokesperson for Susan G. Komen Foundation says.
Along with high cancer rates, African American women have a more than 40 percent higher death rate than white women. Black women are also being diagnosed younger than white women.
“Younger Black women seem like they’re getting more aggressive types of breast cancer. It seems to be more invasive,” Williams-Bowers explains.
Historically, doctors have urged women to begin screening for breast cancer at age 40, but with cases reported before age 40, many are requesting mammography earlier.
“We as Black women have to fight and tell our doctors we want mammography and screenings sooner because it has no age,” Williams-Bowers urges.
Donna Law was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 after a routine mammogram. Known as Ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, this non-invasive form of breast cancer attacks cells in the milk ducts but has not spread to other tissues in the breast.
“I was like ‘oh my God. I’m going to lose my hair and go through chemo.’ I had no symptoms,” Law shares.
With a tumor in her right breast Law was faced with the option of a mastectomy, a procedure to remove the breast.
“The doctor did suggest removing my right breast to reduce the risk of spreading, but that didn’t sit well with my spirit. So, I went and got a second opinion at Karmanos [Cancer Center],” Law explains.
As a result, a surgery to remove the cancerous tissue and reconstruct the breast was performed, keeping the entirety of the breast intact. Although chemotherapy was not needed, radiation was performed to ensure the best chances of recovery.
“I went for radiation and afterwards there were no signs of cancer,” Law says. “And that was scary because you had to go in at the same time every day. I went from January 2 until January 30, 2019.”
Now, celebrating almost two years in remission, Law credits her husband and her support system for the role they played in her recovery.
“I have a husband, and if it had not been for him, I don’t know. A lot of times, we feel family members aren’t supportive enough, but I understood they were scared too,” Law recounts.
While cases in women are more common, men can also be diagnosed with the disease. Most notably, actor Richard Roundtree, television personality Montel Williams and Mathew Knowles, father to superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, have all been open about their bout with breast cancer. Over 2,600 new cases of male breast cancer were reported in 2019 across the country, accounting for about one percent of all breast cancer cases.
“A lot of men have had breast cancer but don’t talk about it because they don’t feel masculine or like manly men, and they are,” William-Bowers explains.
As both women and men fight the disease, many organizations are an essential part of survivors’ success stories. The Susan G. Komen Foundation is one of the most prominent organizations leading the charge in the fight against breast cancer. Through their program, the African American Health Equity Initiative: From Education to Impact, it is educating the masses on the differences in healthcare accessibility and diagnosis while also closing the gap on breast cancer cases in the Black community.
“I really saw we have to educate Black women because there are a lot of resources out there that we don’t know about,” Williams-Bowers explains.
Also known for its Race for the Cure event, the foundation was forced to cancel this year’s race due to COVID-19. However, 2021 will commemorate 30 years of racing for the cure and the organization is making plans around the pandemic.
“Next year, because of COVID, they still haven’t mapped it out; what and how they’re going to do it. They’re still figuring out how they’re going to celebrate the big 30th anniversary,” Williams-Bowers shares.
The American Cancer Society is also doing its part to support survivors and current battlers. With programs geared towards recovery, hair loss and mastectomy products and the American Cancer Society Cancer Survivors Network, this organization provide fighters with the tools necessary to beat the illness.
Each year, the American Cancer Society hosts the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk. The walk is designed to gather fighters together while also serving as a fundraising event.
“This year, fundraising is more critical than ever, as 79% of cancer patients in current treatment have reported a delay in their care due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Katherine Fitzpatrick, senior Community Development manager for the American Cancer Society says.
For Detroit, this year’s walk will be hosted as a virtual live event.
“We will have a short local program on Facebook Live on October 10 and are encouraging our participants to get out and ‘walk where you are’ on that date,” Fitzpatrick shares.
Aside from fundraising, creating comradery and a support system amongst survivors is a main goal for these organizations. Allowing survivors, caretakers and current fighters an atmosphere to share their stories
“Survivor camaraderie is a huge aspect of the Making Strides movement. It is so important for survivors to connect with one another and share their stories to make an impact in the fight against breast cancer,” Fitzpatrick says. “Nobody fights breast cancer alone, and having a network of survivors helps cancer patients feel supported and loved.”
To check for breast cancer women and men can perform self-examinations of their breast tissue searching for any signs of a lump. A family history of the disease could mean the chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer are higher. There are several types of breast cancer and speaking with a doctor can shed more light on risk factors and when testing should be performed as well as treatment options.