Battling Breast Cancer
Black women at risk
June 12, 2000 -- In Faith Fancher's house, high in the hills above San Francisco Bay, her cat Lazarus tiptoes around the living room. Here and there, framed photographs testify to Faith's 27 years as an award-winning TV news reporter.
As in television, each picture tells a story: There's Faith, smiling as she wins a journalism award. There's Faith, tanned and glowing during a trip to Mexico. There's Faith in a black halter dress, looking just like Whitney Houston with her tousled hair and red lipstick.
But look at Faith Fancher herself today, and you see a different woman.
The woman in the photographs is bald now, curled up on the sofa with Lazarus and wearing an old pair of blue sweatpants. Her hair is gone, all of it, even her eyebrows. "I haven't shaved in eight months," says Fancher, laughing ruefully. "I look like a peeled egg."
Like her tousled hair in the photo (actually a wig), Fancher's slinky halter was also an illusion, carefully fitted to hide her port, a plastic tube surgically inserted into her chest through which chemotherapy drugs drip into her bloodstream. Only the red lipstick remains, a vivid reminder that Fancher, 49, is very much alive despite two bouts with breast cancer.
Diagnosed in 1997, Fancher had a mastectomy. Then last June, she found "a little pimple" in her reconstructed breast, in which a small amount of tissue had been allowed to remain. It was cancerous; Fancher had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, which left her too weak to work or even putter in her garden.
Yet she continues to make the rounds of luncheons and fund-raisers, fired by a simple fact that she repeats again and again: While black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, they are much more likely to die from it.
"It knocked me for a loop," says Fancher, who spends much of her time now lobbying for more money for early-detection programs, including mammography and breast self-exam. "I mean, my first thought was, why are we dying?"
Why, indeed. A study by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers, published in the journal Archives of Family Medicine in November 1999, revealed an alarming increase in the already troubling gap between black and white mortality rates due to breast cancer, from 16% in 1990 to 29% in 1995. And the NCI data show that the five-year survival rate for black women with breast cancer is 71%, compared with 87% for white women.
Experts have traditionally explained the discrepancy between black and white survival rates by noting that black women tend not to seek help until their cancers are already at an advanced stage. But the authors of the NCI report found that mortality among black women during the 1960s and 1970s was actually lower compared with that of whites until 1981, when mortality for whites began to drop sharply in response to more aggressive screening programs and better chemotherapy protocols.