Breast cancer discriminates, but why?

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Black women in the U.S. are 40 percent more likely than white women to die of breast cancer, according to a study just published in Cancer Epidemiology. This finding echoes those of previous studies, but the significant difference between the two groups is renewing consideration of why such a racial disparity exists.

For this study, funded by the Avon Foundation for Women, researchers calculated breast cancer death rates in 24 of the largest U.S. cities; in 13 of these cities, black women were significantly more likely to die of the disease than were white women. The racial disparity, say the researchers, added up to 1,722 extra deaths each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year.

While researchers have no definitive explanation for this racial disparity, they continue to discuss a variety of theories. It seems possible that low-income women in racially segregated cities have less access to modern health care facilities that accurately screen for and treat breast cancer. Yet other experts consider the differences in nutritional factors and obesity rates to play a significant role. Disparities in how advanced a cancer is when it is found black women are likelier to be diagnosed with more aggressive cancers may also be an important factor, says Dr. Sam Harper, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal, who has studied the question. African American women also tend to develop the disease at a younger age suggesting the potential role of genetic factors.

Although no consensus has been reached, researchers do agree that they must continue to seek the causes behind the higher breast cancer death rate in black women.