October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when individuals and organizations around the globe call attention to the most common cancer in women worldwide (excluding skin cancers in the U.S.).

Approximately 1 in 8 American women, or 13%, will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. Approximately 1 in 39, or 3%, will die from the disease.

The good news is that U.S. breast cancer deaths have decreased by 40% between 1989 and 2017, according to the American Cancer Society’s “Breast Cancer Facts & Figures, 2019-2020.” In other words, 375,900 more women have survived. The bad news is that the death rate for black women remains significantly higher than that for white women. In fact:

  • Black women are less likely to get breast cancer than white women but more likely to die of the disease at every age. In recent years, death rates have declined for women of all races and ethnicities except for American Indians/Alaska Natives. Their death rate has remained stable. Despite this progress, the mortality rate for breast cancer is 40% higher for black women than for white women.
  • Black women are more likely than white women to be diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40 and to have a more advanced, more aggressive form of the disease.
  • The poverty rate for black Americans is 20%, compared with 8% for white Americans and 16% for Hispanic Americans. Only American Indians/Alaska Natives have a higher poverty rate (22%). Members of poorer communities tend to have less access to care, and the care they do receive often is of lower quality.

What you can do

  • Know your risk factors. Some risks for breast cancer—age, female sex, family history—are out of your control. If you know you have these risk factors, discuss them with your doctor and talk about how early and how frequently you should be screened for breast cancer. In general, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the more likely it can be treated effectively.

Other risk factors—unhealthy diet, obesity, tobacco or alcohol use, inactivity—can be reduced by changing your behavior. Again, talk with your doctor about successful strategies to quit smoking, lose weight, and exercise more.

  • Get routine screenings from an accredited imaging center. There is widespread agreement that mammograms can help detect breast cancer in the early stages. However, the decision on when to have your first mammogram—and how often to have follow-up mammograms—depends on your risk factors. If you have a family history of breast cancer, for example, your doctor most likely will recommend that you have your first mammogram at a younger age than a woman without that family history.

The American Cancer Society offers guidelines for women of average risk. If you meet these guidelines, talk with your doctor about having a mammogram. If your doctor doesn’t recommend it, ask why. And, when it’s time to get screened, ask about accreditation. Accredited facilities are more likely to have more advanced equipment and an experienced, specialized medical team.

  • Consider clinical trials. If you are diagnosed with cancer, ask your doctor about enrolling in a clinical trial. Depending on your situation, clinical trials might provide access to promising new treatments.
  • Support efforts to reduce breast cancer-related health disparities. Black people have historically have been underrepresented in clinical trials, including those for breast cancer. As a result, we know that many of today’s breast cancer treatments work well for white women. We have less data, however, on whether these treatments are effective for black women. That’s one of many reasons Clinical Research Pathways launched its diversity initiative—to train and mentor minority physicians who, in turn, will enroll more minority patients in appropriate clinical trials. Learn more about our diversity initiative and how you can help.