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Black Women Are Dying. Here's What's Killing Them.

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Triple-Negative Breast Cancer in Black Women and Gender-Nonconforming Persons

A diagnosis of cancer, especially breast cancer, is never anything less than life-changing. Both for the diagnosed individual as much as for their loved ones, families, friends and associates, the transition into a new way of living post-diagnosis is seldom an easy one.

Breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and overall medical knowledge has come a remarkable way in the last few decades. Yet even these confident strides forward mean very little if those either most at risk from breast cancer – or worse, suffering unknowingly from it – are not afforded the help and knowledge they need to make the most informed decisions.

Where fate can strike a particularly cruel blow in this regard is triple-negative breast cancer. A diagnosis of this nature is always both severe and serious – and as such, patients undergoing a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer absolutely deserve the best resources and means of care that can possibly be extended to them.

Black women who have undergone a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis were 28% more likely to die due to the disease than Caucasian women with the same diagnosis.

Yet the road forward is often not as straightforward as it ought to be, which we are addressing through our New Alliance for Novel Approaches Project

Depending on the demographic and cultural backgrounds of the patient, and even their gender identities and lifestyle decisions, triple-negative breast cancer can present dire risks that only insight and effective management can help bring back under control.

There is no easy answer to any cancer diagnosis, and tragically, triple-negative breast cancer is no exception to this rule. However, we powerfully believe that, with the right education and with the right access to the right resources, individuals from even the most disadvantaged of backgrounds can face their breast cancer diagnoses with confidence and determination.

Understanding triple-negative breast cancer and its risks

While any breast cancer diagnosis brings with it a truly life-shattering impact, triple-negative breast cancer is remarkable even in spite of this due to how it manifests within the body.

In essence, triple-negative breast cancer is active with a patient’s body in ways that are lacking in estrogen receptors, lacking in progesterone receptors, and does not produce anywhere near enough of the HER2 protein to be receptive to treatment. It also means that hormone therapies have no effect on remedying the situation – a real worst-case scenario for such an invasive form of breast cancer.

Befitting such an aggressive and heavy-hitting breast cancer means that more extreme forms of therapy, such as surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy are all used in helping enhance survival rates and beat back the disease.

Despite this, triple-negative breast cancer remains extremely aggressive and has a high likelihood of recurring within patients. The one saving grace is that this kind of cancer – triple-negative breast cancer – is not as common an occurrence as other forms of diagnosed breast cancer.

Yet even the fact that between 10% and 15% of all breast cancer diagnoses are triple-negative breast cancer is scant reassurance – particularly when you consider the demographics most at risk of contracting triple-negative breast cancer in their lifetimes.

Sisterlove's NANA Project is based in the belief that knowledge is power in helping to prevent, treat and advise anyone facing such a difficult and life-changing diagnosis. That begins by embracing the realities of who is most susceptible to triple-negative breast cancer – women under 40, women of black heritage, and individuals with nonconformist gender identities.

No breast cancer diagnosis should bring with it the despair of a lack of care

Every individual facing health issues in their lifetime ought to be able to enjoy the diagnosis, treatment, and healing journey made available to them by modern medicine.

Yet the reality is far less elegant and far less egalitarian. In May 2021, the publication of the medical journal “Evaluation of Racial/Ethnic Differences in Treatment and Mortality Among Women With Triple-Negative Breast Cancer” by JAMA Oncology highlighted some truly shocking statistics regarding triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The study identified that those black women who have undergone a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis were 28% more likely to die due to the disease than Caucasian women with the same diagnosis.

More alarming still was the fact that the access that black women have to the appropriate levels of support, care, and professional medical attention are significantly less than those afforded Caucasian women with triple-negative breast cancer. This means that even if black women are ‘doing everything right’ following a triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis, access to chemotherapy and life-saving surgery is often more difficult for them to have access to.

Naturally, this cannot be allowed to stand. Yet the circumstances that have given rise to such horrifying statistics are not always indicators of societal injustices or disadvantaged communities being left to fend for themselves – although these are key debates to have.

In fact, much of the issue comes down to the fact that many women of black heritage who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer suffer this affliction due to genetic factors.

While studies in this field are still ongoing – and in some cases, will produce results and data that contradict the findings of hospitals or medical studies from other geographic areas – there is a growing and underlying concern that black women who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer suffer through a combination of genetic predisposition towards the disease as much as a lack of viable access to the level of care that they deserve.

How has the treatment and healing of black women with triple-negative breast cancer become so problematic?

This is a conversation with no easy answers, and one that likewise seldom makes for comfortable reading – yet we at the NANA Project implicitly believe that voices need to be heard to reverse these dire statistics.

Astonishingly, findings from medical professionals worldwide seem to reinforce that black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer as white women.

Heartbreakingly enough, these same brave black women are affected by the lowest rates of survivability at each stage of the diagnosis process than women of any other race or demographic background who are experiencing triple-negative breast cancer battles.

Black women with triple-negative breast cancer are also far more likely to be diagnosed with later stages of the disease than other women, no matter the age group or geographic background. These additional layers of challenge create unfair disadvantages for black women, no matter how conscious of their health they choose to be.

We believe that overcoming this is not just a case of leveling the playing field when it comes to fair and accessible healthcare for everyone – no matter their racial identity. We also believe that educating and uplifting black women, as well as individuals of nonconformist gender identities of every racial background, is the key to ensuring triple-negative breast cancer diagnoses are not given the chance to ruin or claim any more lives than they already have.

The genetic rationale behind why black women are more susceptible to a life-altering triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis is still under review and research at medical institutions across the length and breadth of the country.

However, findings seem to indicate that triple-negative breast cancer diagnoses in black women are more likely to be at stage three, more likely to exceed five centimeters in diameter, and more likely to have spread to the lymph nodes.

Is breast cancer simply more aggressive in black women due to unique genetic factors behind their heritage? The truth is as yet unclear. Either way, it’s vital that women of every age, racial background and level of economic activity are given the chance to unite and discuss how best to equalize access to support and healing when they need it most.

What the Novel Approaches for New Alliances has set out to achieve

Emboldened by the success we have already achieved to bring health equity to Black women, we have create the NANA Project – New Alliance for Novel Approaches – on the belief that we can enhance, and even save, the lives of black women and gender nonconforming persons through compassion, intelligence, and a united voice.

Dr. B.K. Edmond addresses the first NANA Project Meeting in New Orleans
Dr. B.K. Edmond addresses the first NANA Project Meeting in New Orleans

If knowledge is power, then our role is to speed up the energy flow moving into discussions and debates surrounding triple-negative breast cancer diagnoses and treatments available to black women today.

When any medical condition begins to affect our lives, it becomes all too easy to assume that we are enduring such a crisis alone – yet that simply isn’t true. While your journey is your own, and ought to be honored as such, there are those who have faced down the demons you battle today – as well as those only now facing them for the first time who could benefit from your experience and gathered wisdom.

We are not here to overpower the autonomy of anyone facing up to a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer – and nor are we aiming to supersede any advice as given by qualified medical professionals.

Nonetheless, we cannot stand idly by while black women continue dying from triple-negative breast cancer diagnoses – especially when better-timed intervention and more robust knowledge on what support women are entitled to can help correct so many failings, in so many areas.

Whether it’s extra information on what home checks or other means of detection are available for black women to take matters into their own hands, or strategies to not only survive a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer but enjoy a fulfilling and active life despite it, the NANA Project is on your side.

Spreading the word is only half the battle, but it’s one we actively encourage nonetheless. The more tweets, posts, and shows of support our project is able to achieve, the better the breadth and depth of outreach available to black women and individuals of unique gender identity who are scared and worried about triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis.

Our approach within the NANA Project has been consciously developed to take advantage of the benefits of an intersectional lens. What this means is that our community is built by, and for, women of every kind of background and cultural identity. Only by effectively pooling our knowledge, our compassion, and our resources can we truly affect the change that black women need to stop perishing unnecessarily from triple-negative breast cancer.

Joining hands with those of like mind

Overcoming the severe changes to life brought on by either a concern about triple-negative breast cancer or an outright diagnosis, is something far bigger than even the NANA Project.

It means joining hands with organizations and individuals with goals that align with our own – something we have taken pride in doing. After all, the more voices are unified in speaking on the struggles facing black women where triple-negative breast cancer is concerned, the more change can be effected – and the more research we can perhaps collectively inspire to take hold.

SisterLove has already introduced the NANA Project to the likes of Women With A Vision, the BK Edmond Project and Mausiki Scales of Common Ground Collective in July 2022. Our causes are united with the vision of enriching the education and support open to black women at any stage of their triple-negative breast cancer journey – even if that journey is just preventative measures and self-checking best practices.

Remember, whether you are simply anxious about your health, an active survivor battling triple-negative breast cancer today, a loved one of someone whom you have tragically lost to the disease or someone who has endured all of the above and beyond – we would love to unite your voice with our own.

Bringing together as many perspectives and sources of inspiration as possible is, we believe, central to collectively pushing back against the stunning numbers of black women, young and old, being lost to us on Earth to triple-negative breast cancer year on year.

Overcoming the road before us won’t be easy – yet in harmony, we stand a greater chance of changing the tide than we each ever could alone. Know that you have our love and support, no matter where in your journey you are – the NANA Project is here for you.

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