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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Genes: Key to Advanced Breast Cancer in Blacks?

Study Examines Link Between Breast Cancer Patients in Africa and U.S.
WebMD Health News

Mar. 11, 2005 -- Genetics may be why U.S. black women tend to get more advanced breast cancer.

Even though black women get breast cancer less often, when they do, it's often more advanced than in white women.

Now, researchers have found similarities in breast cancer between African women and U.S. black women. This, they say, points to a possible genetic cause for more advanced breast cancers among black American women.

The researchers noticed several parallels between breast cancer patients in Africa and black women with breast cancer in the U.S.

  • Both groups tend to get breast cancer at younger ages than white women.
  • They are also often diagnosed with more advanced breast cancers.
  • Black women with breast cancer in the U.S. and Africa also die more often from the disease than white women.

Millions of Africans were removed from their homes and enslaved in the U.S. centuries ago. Most came from sub-Saharan Africa. Could that long-ago connection also include a breast cancer pattern still seen today?

Genes and Ancestry

The University of Michigan's Alero Fregene, MD, and Lisa Newman, MD, MPH, explored the topic. They searched for African breast cancer studies reported in English from 1988 to 2004.

All studies focused on women from sub-Saharan Africa because of their shared ancestry with black U.S. women. This excludes northern nations including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. Each study had to have at least 50 women.

Three key findings emerged.

  • First, black women in the U.S. and Africa had several things in common.
  • Second, breast cancer is poised to rise in Africa, as more Africans adopt Western lifestyles.
  • Last but not least, breast cancer education, diagnosis, treatment, and research are severely lacking in many parts of Africa.

Younger Age at Diagnosis

Breast cancer frequency was "quite low" in Western Africa, striking about 20 out of 100,000 women, says the study. In the West, the rate is 90 out of 100,000 women, says a news release.

In Africa, most women with breast cancer are ddiagnosed between ages 35-45 years. That's about 10-15 years earlier than the peak for countries in the West, says the study.

In America, more black women than whites are diagnosed with breast cancer before age 45. On average, black women are diagnosed at 57, compared to 63 for white women, says the study.

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