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Breast cancer awareness is not reaching black women like me. People are dying

When I first discovered I had breast cancer, I felt shocked and afraid. I thought maybe there had been a mistake. I was 52, and didn’t have any symptoms: there were no lumps, just what I thought was a cyst under my armpit. I’d gone to hospital to get it checked, and had a mammogram and biopsy.

A week later I received several calls from the doctor, which I didn’t respond to until a voicemail asked me to come in. This was over the holiday period, and I went with a family member who herself had gone through a recent diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer and understood the process. That’s when they told me I had stage two cancer. I remember thinking that this couldn’t be right. I’m healthy and fit, and play a lot of sports.

As a black woman, breast cancer wasn’t something I had received much information about. No one in my family had had it, and I don’t remember learning about it in school. When you pick up a breast cancer leaflet you tend to see a white woman staring back at you. I never saw it as an issue that specifically affected me.

But, of course, it does. In fact, new analysis shows that black women in England are twice as likely to be diagnosed with advanced breast cancer as white women. This is for many reasons, including possible differences in tumour biology, low awareness of symptoms and screening, and barriers to seeking help. In my community here in Leeds I know two women who have lost their lives to breast cancer, one of them only 49 years old.

I believe black women are less likely to go for screenings because the prevention work is not targeted at us. It would be great if larger charities made sure that their messaging reached women of colour.

There are charities working with black communities already, such as Black Health Initiative (BHI), but we need help spreading the message. BHI has a national cancer programme – BME Cancer – which launched in the House of Commons in 2014 and addresses the disparities within cancer among diverse communities. This kind of outreach and awareness cannot be time-limited; we need to keep going until it’s clear everyone is getting the message. After all, many from these communities support the national cancer fundraising drives, such as Stand Up To Cancer, Macmillian’s Coffee Mornings and Race For Life. Let’s be deliberately inclusive rather than accidentally exclusive when it comes to tackling inequalities. We have enough evidence to show it’s time for action.

My journey taught me to be more open and talk more. I had a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy and three weeks of radio therapy. My treatment involves being on a drug for five years. I also have a mammogram every year. On being diagnosed, I felt a tinge of sadness, not knowing who to tell. But then I found some great support here in Leeds among other black women. It helped me get through some difficult days. It’s so comforting knowing that you’re not alone and that someone else is going through the same journey as you. We are able to share stories and talk, hold each other’s hands and raise awareness.

Only last week someone approached me, as they had to go for a mammogram and didn’t know what was going to happen. I gave them just a brief description of my experience, as I didn’t want to instil fear in them, but it was good to be candid and open. I hope I helped reassure them.

I just wish there was more awareness nationally. If the government, charities and those who hold the financial pot through fundraising do not recognise a need for inclusion when it comes to breast cancer awareness, then black women will continue to die at a higher rate. It’s as simple as that.

Source: theguardian

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