“Data obtained from the International Agency for research on Cancer shows that compared to Developed countries African women do not have a higher rate of Breast Cancer Incidence but have an alarming higher mortality rate.”
Breast cancer strikes fewer women in Africa, “but it hits earlier and harder.” – Funmi Olopade, M.D.
In my recent pieces on breast cancer, much of the research and statistics surrounded the impact of the disease on African American women. I found it interesting that although the disease affects women from all walks of life, research have shown that breast cancer impacts African American women differently, when compared to their white/European counterparts. With this information in mind, I thought that it would be interesting to expand the scope of my analysis beyond African American women. Therefore, I picked up my laptop with intent on finding research about how breast cancer affects Afro-Caribbean and African born women. Although African American women share the same orijin as their Caribbean and African counterparts and as a result, they probably would have similar genetic makeup that would most likely yield the same results, I was still curious to see if there was a difference between the way breast cancer affects and impacts women from different parts of the African Diaspora.
While scientists have been unable to pinpoint the exact cause of breast cancer, they have produced evidence to show that various environmental factors contribute to its development. With this information in mind, I thought that if I embarked on the analysis of how the disease impact African women from different parts of the Diaspora, then maybe I will be able to identify certain trends, similarities or differences. Maybe women in the Caribbean have lower rates or developed the disease later on than their African or American counterparts because of their exposure to cleaner air and exotic fruits. Maybe African women were less susceptible to the disease because of their diet and environments. While my “maybes” might sound a bit silly, I was curious to find out if there was some sort of merit to them. Despite my noted intent, my research took an unexpected turn. Firstly, it was difficult to obtain research information about the impact of breast cancer on Caribbean or African women. This is because much of the available research was about African American women. I even found an interesting piece detailing how researchers are trying to figure out if the chemical agents in hair relaxers in anyway contribute to the development of breast cancer in African American women. However, it was very difficult to obtain research about the impact of breast cancer of Caribbean and African women.
After muddling through the limited available research, I came to the realization that the lack of information has to do with the fact that many of the countries in the Caribbean and Africa lacked the necessary resources to undertake and produce statistical research. The lack of available research can prove to be very detrimental to fostering awareness, which will help in increase ones survival rate.
Another important fact I came across while conducting my research was that due to their lack of economic and social resources, many African and Caribbean countries had lower breast cancer survival rates than counties that were more “developed.” According to a 2011 report produced by The International Agency For Research on Cancer about cancer survival in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Central America, ‘Cancer Survival in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Central America‘ reveals striking inequities in cancer survival between and within countries, reflecting a wide range in cancer health services. For instance, 5-year survival for breast cancer ranged from 12.5% in the Gambia to 81% in Busan in the Republic of Korea. Countries with highly developed health services, where early detection and adequate treatment are available, had significantly higher survival for cancers.” The report further cautioned that “differences in survival outcomes show that the development of health services and their efficiency in providing early diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care have profound influence on cancer survival. These results call for urgent investment by governments in low- and medium-resource countries to improve awareness, early detection programmes, and health services infrastructure and accessibility.”
Based on the above findings and cautionary note, it is obvious that women with breast cancer in economically “developed” countries often have substantially higher survival rates than their “less developed” counterparts. This should be an issue of concern for African women throughout the Diaspora, as we have to help investigate and develop ways to not only create awareness but to also acquire the necessary resources to ensure that we do not continue loose a relatively significant portion and important members of our communities.
On might question the need to obtain data and research pertaining to specific groups of people as breast cancer is not a disease that discriminates along racial or cultural lines. However, as demonstrated by the research surrounding the impact of breast cancer on African American women when compared to their white/European counterparts, we have seen the importance of generating and undertaking research identifying the possible differences and similarities among different racial and cultural groups. Because of this available research, we have been able to determine that African American women are impacted by breast cancer at an earlier age; therefore, conventional recommendations that women undergo breast cancer screening tests at age 50 or later are not the best practice for them. Additionally, researchers at the University of Miami have also been able to determine that Caribbean women appear to be at high risk of inheriting an aggressive form of breast cancer. As a result, they have embarked on conducting more research to determine possible factors that contribute to this, which will in turn help in the development of preventative measures for these women. As noted by the president of the research centre Elizabeth Thompson, “this research may lead to a better understanding of issues unique to black women throughout the Caribbean and in the United States, as we attempt to address breast cancer’s impacts across diverse groups.”
Although the research about the impact of breast cancer on women in the Caribbean and Africa is currently limited in scope, there have been and continue to be some development in creating awareness. Groups such as Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa Inc, cancercareafrica.org, better days – African Caribbean Breast cancer support and the recent African-Caribbean Consortiums have been important in helping to bring about awareness and foster an environment where women in these areas have the necessary support and resources. As the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness draws to a close, it is imperative that we do not shut the door on the issue. As a community, we should ensure that we do all we can to help close the gap many of our governments lack the resources to fill by helping to provide awareness and thus, prevention. As my grandmother would say, “an once of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”