Angela Bivins was an Atlanta-based teacher and mother of two when she got the news that changed her life forever.
"I'd felt some tenderness near my left underarm," she remembers. "I asked my sister, who does mammograms for a living [a radiology technician], to do a check, and she told me to quickly make an appointment. She thought it was possibly a cyst."
In April 2002, when the doctor told us my wife, Chris, had breast cancer, the first two words out of my mouth were "Oh" and a four-letter word. I felt shock and disbelief -- that this kind of thing happens to other people, not to us. I had no idea how I would handle this -- do all the caregiving, plus make a living. Right away, my attitude was, "It's her job to get better, and it's my job to do everything else." But it still seemed impossible.
As it turned out, Chris had stage 3 breast cancer and...
"I was devastated," she says. "I didn't feel like I'd done all I was supposed to do. And as a single mother, I didn't want my children to have to consider the possibility of me not being around. But you have to shift gears quickly and fight for your life. Because cancer doesn't consider your race, your financial status, your age, or anything else."
Who Gets It?
As a 44-year-old African-American woman, Bivins wasn’t a typical breast cancer patient. But she wasn't atypical, either. According to the American Cancer Society, white women are slightly more likely to get the disease than black women. But it’s more common in black women under age 45 than in white women. Other non-white women, like Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans, have a lower risk of getting this type of cancer.
Many people who get the disease have none of the risk factors.
Of those factors, age is the strongest, after gender. That means you have a greater chance of getting breast cancer as you get older. At age 30, your chances of are 1 in 227. By age 70, they’re 1 in 26, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Women are 100 times more likely get the disease than men because they have much higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, which are thought to trigger breast cancer cells.
Here are some other things that affect your chances of getting it:
Genes: About 5% to 10% of breast cancers in America are caused by gene mutations like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. If you have either of these, your risk of getting it in your lifetime is likely between 45% and 65%. Bivins was tested for the BRCA genes because her mother is a cancer survivor. Her results said she didn't have the genes.