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Breast Cancer Health Center

Genes: Key to Advanced Breast Cancer in Blacks?

Study Examines Link Between Breast Cancer Patients in Africa and U.S.
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More Advanced Breast Cancer, More Deaths

In Africa, fewer women are diagnosed with breast cancer, but a disproportionate number of them die from it, says the study.

The same is true for black women in the U.S. "African-American women have a lower lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer, accounting for approximately 8% of all estimated new cases in the USA," write the researchers. "In contrast, they account for approximately 13% of all breast cancer deaths."

African and black American women also tend to have more advanced breast cancers that aren't estrogen sensitive. Breast cancer in white women often grows in response to the hormone estrogen.

Those similarities may indicate common genetic features shared by black women on both continents, the study suggests.

A World Away

That's a provocative possibility, but it's not a proven fact, says the study. Much more work needs to be done on breast cancer in Africa, write the researchers.

Genetic and population studies are needed. Those could reveal more about gene patterns and lifestyle factors. For instance, African women tend to start menstruation later, have more babies at younger ages, and breast feed longer -- all of which are associated with less breast cancer.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There is an immediate need to help patients and to get the word out about breast cancer.

Breast cancer is likely to rise as more Africans take on Western lifestyles. Researchers have seen the same thing happen in Asian populations, where breast cancer becomes more common in second- and third-generations who've moved to America.

In Africa, funds and equipment are often scarce. There are only two screening mammography units in the entire country of Uganda, says the study. With few resources, whatever care women may get could come too late.

Breast cancer education is also needed. The University of Michigan researchers noted that in a Nigerian study of 204 nurses, 31% were unfamiliar with breast cancer risk assessment and most didn't think they were personally at risk. In another Nigerian study, 85% of 200 schoolteachers said they knew that breast cancer was a serious disease, but only 53% knew that a breast lump was a significant symptom.

The study appears in the journal Cancer's April 15 edition.

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