NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Death rates from breast cancer have been dropping steadily over the past decade while five-year survival is now up to more than 90-percent. However, hidden in these hopeful statistics is a disturbing trend: black women are dying at a much greater rate.
That survival gap is all the more disturbing when you realize that white women actually have more breast cancer than black women. Yet when black women get diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s at a later stage and they die at a much greater rate.
As CBS 2HD’s Dr. Max Gomez reports, St. Barnabas Hospital in the Tremont Section of the Bronx is taking healthcare right to the people who need it most.
“It might be a death sentence for me,” breast cancer patient Patricia Moore said might have happened had she not gotten her breast cancer diagnosed and treated at an early stage.
The early diagnosis started as it often does, with a mammogram. What’s unusual about Patricia’s case is where it was done. She walked into a mobile van, parked on a Bronx street. “It’s really an in-and-out thing. They make you feel very comfortable,” she said.
That’s the key. Breast surgeon Dr. Bert Petersen heads the St. Barnabas outreach program, and said offering healthcare like mammograms in places like hospitals isn’t enough.
“Something intimidating to actually get their healthcare in these large settings where sometimes there’s a language barrier and cultural barriers in these large institutions,” Petersen said. “So it really becomes important to engage in what I like to call taking healthcare to the people.”
So the St. Barnabas van parks outside churches, beauty parlors, and community centers.
Guillermina Paredes is a typical patient. She couldn’t afford health insurance but made just enough to keep her from qualifying for Medicaid. First she was helped with paperwork, then she was led back to the mammography unit. Her cancer surgery was just three weeks ago.
She told Dr. Gomez it would have been catatstrophic for her had she not been able to walk in and get a mammogram for the lump she found in her breast.
“We’ve started to pick up on these cancers much earlier which has not only led to the ultimate outcome of better survival but we have more women who no longer need a masectomy,” Petersen said.
“If you can walk and have a test done, it saves more lives every day, every hour, every minute, every year,” Patricia said.
The community approach doesn’t end with just getting mammograms. Women are referred to oncologists, surgeons and social workers that shepherd them through the healthcare system, because getting a diagnosis doesn’t do much good if you don’t also get good treatment.
Lack of access to healthcare isn’t the only reason why black women are dying more often from their breast cancer. There are several factors at work.
Some of it appears to be genetic. Black women, including Latino blacks, tend to develop breast cancer at an earlier age and have a more aggressive form of the disease.
Even when you correct for those differences, however, black women do worse than white women and that’s due to access to healthcare.