*This post is sponsored by Genentech*
The phone call was every bit as devastating as it was unexpected: my best friend, my heart, was calling to tell me that her annual mammogram revealed two masses—one in each breast—and she’d have to submit to the knife to figure out if she had cancer. I wasn’t ready. Neither was she. But it was go time. No hesitation. No playing around. No time for either.
The fact of the matter is that, as a woman of color, my BFF understood the stakes: Black women are more likely to develop breast cancer at a younger age, we tend to develop more aggressive tumors that are harder to treat, and our five-year breast cancer survival rate is significantly lower than that of white women—77 percent compared to 90 percent. What’s worse: we tend to be underrepresented in critical breast cancer research, making any ground we can gain to close that gap largely untenable.
Meaning our diagnoses come with a significant racial component that can make an already scary health prognosis downright devastating.
I watched this in real time just a few years ago, when my former sister-in-law’s best friend lost her fight with the disease. She’d been diagnosed in her late ‘30s, just a couple years after her youngest child was born, and quickly submitted to a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, a decision meant to save her life. And it did for a few years, for sure. But the time it bought her was relatively short; within a couple years, it came back stronger and harder than the first diagnosis, and quickly spread to other parts of her body before a heart attack, brought on during surgery to give her relief from the impact of the spread of the cancer to her brain, took her out of here. She was 42 and left a husband and five babies.Let’s talk about how to be smart about a breast cancer diagnosis, shall we? Click To Tweet
I don’t want to see anyone lose any more best friends—not one more baby forced to wake up in the middle of the night crying for her mother. So let’s talk about how to be smart about a breast cancer diagnosis, shall we?
The truth is, breast cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers among women in the U.S.; one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and this year alone, it will claim the lives of more than 40,000 women in the United States. At some point in your lifetime, you will likely know someone with breast cancer and may be involved in helping the ones you love make treatment decisions with their doctor.
But despite the numbers and the widespread recognition of the pink ribbon as a sign of support for those who’ve died, survived or researched breast cancer, all-too-many of us have no idea just how complex a disease it is. Breast cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease; it’s classified into different types based on the unique characteristics of each tumor, including the size, lymph node status, stage and subtype, among others, and each of these characteristics help determine a diagnosis.
Getting down to the nitty gritty: doctors study the cancer cells to figure out which subtype breast cancer patients have; common subtypes include hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive and triple-negative. A patient could also have a combination of subtypes, and/or other factors contributing to cancer growth, but studies show that about 15 to 20 percent of women with breast cancer have HER2-positive (meaning an excess of HER2 protein compared to healthy cells), 80 percent of breast cancer patients have HR-positive (when the cancer cells depend on either estrogen, progesterone or both to grow), and about 15 percent of women with breast cancer have Triple-negative cancer, which is the absence of the HER2-positive and HR—positive characteristics. Black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Triple-negative than white women here in the U.S.Recognizing that breast cancer is not one type empowers women to make informed treatment decisions. Click To Tweet
Why do we need to know these kinds of details? Because recognizing that breast cancer is not one type empowers women and the folks who love them to have productive convos about how to deal with the disease and make more informed treatment decisions with their doctors. It’s just not cool to walk into the doctor’s office completely uninformed and, worse, to leave the office feeling powerless.
Thank God my best friend took charge of her health, first by getting an annual mammogram; second, by studying up on what she was facing; third, by surrounding herself with loved ones who had her back while she faced down her diagnosis, and; fourth, by walking into that doctor’s office informed and ready with questions. She was ready.
You should be, too. For your own sake. Check out http://www.notonetype.org/ for more great information on how you can take control of a breast cancer diagnosis.
This post is made possible with support from Genentech’s Not One Type campaign. All opinions are my own.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.