Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the United States. But did you know that your race plays a role in how likely you are to get breast cancer, what type of breast cancer you get, and how likely you are to die from it?
About 1 in 8 women in the United States will get breast cancer in their lifetime. If you look at the rates at which women get breast cancer by race, white women and black women have about the same rate at around 12%. Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic women have about the same rate as each other at about 9%. American-Indian women are at the least risk at about 7%.
"We know that the incidence of breast cancer overall is about the same in white women and black women," says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention Center. "However, black women, especially younger women, are more likely to get some of the more serious breast cancers, get them at an earlier age and die more often from the disease."
Black women are twice as likely to get triple-negative breast cancer, which is an aggressive form of the disease. Triple-negative breast cancers spread more rapidly and are harder to treat than other types of breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer is also more likely to come back after treatment.
Black women under the age of 35 have breast cancer rates that are two times higher than white women of the same age. Younger black women tend to get diagnosed at later stages and as a result, have lower survival rates.
In contrast, white women have the second highest mortality rate, followed by American-Indian, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander women respectively.
"We don’t fully understand the reason for these differences," says Bevers. "If we can get a handle on why the African-American population has a higher risk of these types of cancers, at younger ages, we may be able to better help them, and improve their chances of survival."
Black women, especially younger women, are more likely to get some of the more serious breast cancers, get them at an earlier age and die more often from the disease.
A healthy lifestyle can reduce breast cancer risk for all women
Healthy behaviors also play a big role in breast cancer cases.
"Hispanic and Asian women’s risk changes when they come from their native country to the United States and are exposed to this country's sedentary lifestyle and fattening diet,” says Bevers.
For example, breast cancer risk is not very high in Asian women. If they come to the United States and adopt the lifestyle, their breast cancer risk increases. The same is true of Hispanic women who move from their native countries and adopt an American lifestyle.
Race is only one factor that affects your breast cancer risk. Lifestyle choices also play a role. There are steps women of all races can take to reduce their breast cancer risk.
Maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Being overweight or obese raises your risk for a number of cancers, including breast cancer.
Avoid alcohol. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to one drink per day. Alcohol raises risk for several types of cancers, so men should limit themselves to two drinks per day.
Exercise. Women who are physically active have a lower-than-average risk of breast cancer. Women who are not active have a higher-than-average risk. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week.
Manage hormones naturally. Using hormone therapy during menopause increases your risk of breast cancer and possibly ovarian cancer.
Choose to breastfeed. Try to breastfeed exclusively for six months after giving birth, and continue even when other foods are introduced.
Practice breast awareness. Most breast cancers are found by women during normal daily activities like bathing, shaving or even scratching. Stay alert to what your breasts look and feel like, and talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any changes.
Get screened. Beginning at age 25, women should consider getting a clinical breast exam every one to three years. Beginning at age 40, women should get a clinical breast exam and a mammogram every year.
"African-American women should be aware that when they’re younger, they have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than the other races," says Bevers. "African-American women, along with women of other races, should be serious about getting their screening and getting any abnormality in their breast properly evaluated."