The gene flaw that prompted Angelina Jolie to undergo a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer has been detected in a surprisingly large number of black women with breast cancer. The first comprehensive study of black women with breast cancer has found that 20 percent of these women have genetic mutations that dramatically increases their risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer.
The discovery, presented at a conference in Chicago on Monday, could provide clues to why black women have higher rates of breast cancer at younger ages and a worse chance of survival than their white counterparts. African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than all other women.
Jolie brought attention to the gene BRCA in a candid op-ed about her own discovery that she carries the gene mutation BRCA1, which gave her an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. She noted the mutation is exceedingly rare; just 5 percent of white women and 12 percent of Eastern European Jews carry the gene.
The newly-discovered rate among black breast cancer patients, however, is more than double the national average. Many women in the study had mothers, aunts, and sisters who had also suffered from breast cancer.
But black women with the BRCA mutation likely won’t get the same medical counseling and care Jolie received. Because bio-pharmaceutical giant Myriad Genetics was permitted to patent the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, testing alone is prohibitively expensive at $4,000. Therefore, many of these women found out about their mutation after they had already contracted the cancer — too late for the preventative measures Jolie took. Even with health insurance, Americans combating cancer are twice as likely to go bankrupt due to the arbitrarily high cost of cancer drugs.
African American women in particular have more unstable insurance coverage than white women do, and are more likely to delay seeing a doctor because they can’t afford it or couldn’t get time off work. They also depend more heavily on Medicaid than other women, which could explain why they have significantly more trouble finding specialists when needed.
Furthermore, black women suffer from the medical world’s widespread racial biases. A large-scale Johns Hopkins study found that many healthcare providers unconsciously prefer white patients, leading them to neglect black patients, offer them fewer treatment options than whites, and even prescribe them fewer painkillers. Angelina Jolie’s story may be encouraging to other women with BRCA gene flaws, but, as a white celebrity, her medical reality is completely foreign to black women in the same position.