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Breast Cancer, Race, and Ethnicity

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting American women, and is second only to lung cancer as a leading cause of cancer death in women. The number of breast cancer cases has been on the rise during the past 20 years, while the death rate from breast cancer has decreased slightly in the past five years. The increase in cases is related, in part, to a greater emphasis on screening with routine breast exams and mammography.

These screening tools often can detect breast cancer at an earlier stage, when it is more treatable, which helps explain why the death rate has not increased significantly.

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The exact cause of breast cancer has not been established, but there are risk factors that may play a role. A risk factor is a trait or behavior that increases a person's chance of developing a disease or makes a person susceptible to a certain condition. Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • Being female (Breast cancer can occur in men, but it is rare.)
  • Getting older
  • Having a family history of breast cancer
  • Having a personal history of cancer in one breast
  • Having your first child after age 35 or never having children
  • Getting your period early in life (before age 12)
  • Reaching menopause after age 55
  • Being overweight (especially in the waist)
  • Long-term use of combined (estrogen and progestin) hormone replacement therapy
  • Being a carrier of an altered form of the breast cancer gene, BRCA1 or BRCA2 (Genes are the basic unit of heredity. They contain instructions for a cell's development and function, and are passed on from parents to children.)
  • Having received chest radiation
  • Drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day
  • A diet that's high in fat and low in vegetables

 

Does Race or Ethnicity Affect Breast Cancer Risk?

All women should be aware of their risk for breast cancer. It can affect women of every age, race, and ethnic group. However, the rates of developing and dying from breast cancer vary among various racial and ethnic groups.

According to the National Cancer Institute, white, non-Hispanic women have the highest overall incidence rate for breast cancer among U.S. racial/ethnic groups, while Korean-American women have the lowest rate. Among women ages 40-50, African-American women have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women and the highest death rate from breast cancer. Chinese-American women have the lowest death rate.

The higher death rate from breast cancer among African-American women has been linked to the stage, or extent, of the cancer at the time it's diagnosed. Studies show that African-American women tend to seek treatment when their cancer is in a more advanced, less treatable stage.

In addition, a higher percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics lack a usual source of health care, such as a primary care provider. Having a primary care provider increases the chance that a person will receive appropriate preventive care -- including routine check-ups and screenings -- that may detect breast cancer at an early stage.

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