In the 1980s, the mortality rate for breast cancer was about the same for white and black women. But since then, the breast cancer deaths among the two groups has widened dramatically — and today, black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts.
Although 70 percent of white women live at least five years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, that survival rate drops to just 56 percent for African-American women. “Despite 20 years of pink ribbon awareness campaigns and numerous advances in medical treatment that have sharply improved survival rates for women with breast cancer in the United States, the vast majority of those gains have largely bypassed black women,” the New York Times reports.
That’s largely because black women are less likely to have access to early screening and treatment, and have a lower rate of surgical intervention to stave off the disease. They’re twice as likely to suffer from genetic mutations that predispose them to breast and cervical cancers, but researchers say that isn’t enough to explain the huge gaps in mortality. Breast cancer is still diagnosed more frequently in white women.
Some stark differences emerge between states in this area. Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas currently have the largest gaps in breast cancer mortality rates, with disparities larger than 12 points. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has a gap of just over two points. Those numbers are directly tied to the number of low-income people of color who struggle to access health services, a population that’s more concentrated in the South.
It’s hardly the only example of racial disparity in the health care system. Black women may also be more at risk for cervical cancer than white women are — since the clinical trials to develop the HPV vaccine included mostly white subjects, it doesn’t work as well for African-Americans. In fact, people of color are often underrepresented in clinical trials, and diseases that predominantly affect the African-American community tend to receive less research funding. And black people are more likely to suffer from fatal diseases in general, largely because they’re less likely to have access to high-quality primary care and hospital staff.
A lot of these issues stem from the fact that black Americans are nearly twice as likely to be uninsured as white Americans. But it’s not just about the ability to visit a doctor. It’s possible that black people also receive a lower quality of care when they’re interacting with medical professionals — studies have found that an estimated two-thirds of doctors harbor “unconscious racial biases” toward their African-American patients. The New York Times points out that many black women aren’t getting regular check-ups because they feel like they’ve been excluded from the health system for their whole lives.