Young black women with breast cancer may have deadliest tumors of all

New research sheds light on why the disease kills more African-Americans than Caucasians.

By Lynn Harris

Published June 7, 2006 5:45PM (EDT)

My friend Tanya was special in many wonderful ways. And one terribly sad one: While breast cancer is less common among black women than white women, it did not spare her.

Actually, when breast cancer does strike African-American women, it is more likely to kill them, especially when they are under 50. (Tanya was 41.) And now researchers are beginning to figure out why. A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that young black breast cancer sufferers are more likely than their white or older counterparts to develop a particularly deadly type of tumor. As the New York Times reports, "Among premenopausal black women with breast cancer, 39 percent had the more dangerous kind, called a 'basal like' subtype, compared with only 14 percent of older black women and 16 percent of non-black women of any age." Many of the standard breast cancer treatments are powerless against this type of tumor.

While researchers now know that younger black women are more prone to "basal like" tumors, they still aren't sure exactly why.

Of course, tumor type isn't the only reason for the difference in fatality rates. Researchers also cite disparities in access to healthcare and nutrition as well as differences in environmental exposure. (Which to me, depending on how much context is offered, can sometimes sounds a tad unnuanced, even a little patronizing: It can imply, just slightly, that black women are helpless slackers, or that poor rural white women don't live near toxic-waste dumps.) But "basal like" tumors do have a genetic component: Other research suggests that they're the most common kind found in Africa and that they tend to run in families in Nigeria and Senegal. As one specialist told the Times, women of all races whose close relatives developed breast cancer at an early age should start screening for the disease before age 40.

We welcome this study, which was evidently the first of its kind to sort the subtypes of tumors by race. And we hope that it can help contribute to better survival rates. New information about these tumors should indeed help researchers pinpoint new ways to fight them. Trials, in fact, have already begun; new treatments could be available in as soon as a year.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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