Look around: It’s time to get checked

This week, look around when you’re at church and try to pick out which 1 of the 8 women around you will get diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. These women will be witness to some profound changes, when their hair begins to thin and eyelashes fall out because of the treatment they’re receiving.

If these women happen to be black, they’ll be twice as likely to die when compared to their white counterpart.  

Why? Because the threat is more severe and the diagnosis is often too late.

Part of the problem is a rare form of a very aggressive and difficult-to-treat breast cancer is unusually prevalent in black women, accounting for as much as 20 percent of all cases of breast cancer and making younger black women (under the age of 50) 77 percent more likely to die from this form of disease than white women of all ages.

That’s scary—and it makes early detection all the more important.

Which leads us to the second part of the problem. No matter what kind of breast cancer, black women are less likely to get screening and less likely to report early signs of breast cancer to a physician.
While mammography rates for black women over the age of 50 have improved, more than half of black women still report not getting one when recommended. Some studies also suggest black women are at risk of breast cancer—particularly the more aggressive kinds—as young as 20 years of age; so young, many physicians do not think they need a mammogram.    

Getting the right treatment on time is also a problem. All too often, issues like lack of transportation, gaps in insurance coverage, or getting time off from work make it harder to see a doctor. Even in the doctor’s office, studies show linguistic and ethnic minorities have a harder time communicating—and therefore trusting—their physician when it comes time to talk about their symptoms or concerns about treatments, such as taking medication on time or the risks associated with radiation from mammograms.  

Nevertheless, mammography is a critical first step to treating breast cancer early, before it becomes life-threatening. Catching breast cancer before it spreads to the rest of the body can make the difference between a 93 percent chance of survival and 15 percent.

That is why Neighborhood Health Plan has been working to get the word out about the danger of breast cancer and what resources are available to fight it through local ads, a hotline, and working with the community to encourage black women get mammograms.

We’re kicking off our campaign again and, while we made progress before, we’re aiming higher.

But the battle against breast cancer starts with you. Look around. It’s time to get checked.

Pam Siren is the Vice President of Quality and Compliance of Boston-based Neighborhood Health Plan (NHP), a not-for-profit Managed Care Organization (MCO).