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African-American Breast Cancer Survivors Turn Knowledge Into Power

Lauren Silverman
Women in the group “Survivors On Purpose” meets once a month to share news, medical research and a few laughs.";s:

Mental health issues can leave people feeling isolated and ashamed. To counter misconceptions about mental illness and help connect people with resources, the Texas Department of State Health Services is launching Speak Your Mind Texas, a conversation about mental health traveling to cities across the state.

Although African-American women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer, they are more likely to die of the disease. In North Texas, a group of breast cancer survivors are trying to change that — through community education, and support.

Once a month, Leslie Williams invites breast cancer survivors to come together in a group called Survivors On Purpose, held at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Irving.

It was five years ago that Williams, who was only 41 at the time, felt something a bit painful and squishy, about the size of a grape in her breast.

After a series of tests, her doctor told her it was cancer —triple negative breast cancerto be specific.

“I had absolutely no clue what that was,” Williams says. “Every time I did research, it was morbidity, it was death. Always with the tag of African American women.”

African American Women And Breast Cancer

African-American women are nearlytwice as likely to get triple negative cancer than are white women. Dr. Roshni Rao, a surgical oncologist at UT Southwestern, is often asked why.

“And the straight forward answer is we’re not sure,” Rao says.

What is certain is that triple negative breast cancer is difficult to treat because it doesn’t respond to the traditional breast cancer drugs.

Most breast cancer cells test positive for certain receptors – like estrogen, progesterone and HER-2. Meaning if you give the cancer cells medications that interfere with those receptors, those cancer cells stop growing. Triple negative, Rao says, doesn’t have any of those receptors.

“So we don’t have any of those medications to utilize to target that cancer.”

That means surgery, chemo, and radiation are currently the most effective treatments.

Knowledge Is Power

Leslie Williams has been cancer free for five years, but she made a promise she wouldn’t stop talking to women in her community about triple negative breast cancer.

“I need to make it safe for us to have that conversation,” she says, “Because we don’t talk about it. We’re raised to be superwomen. We take care of everyone, we are the caretaker, we can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…due to social situations we wear the pants in the family. We dismiss our health issues and put it last until something falls off…it’s too late. I’m trying to change that and say we have to shift that.”

Early Detection Is Key

Friends and family helped get Carla Harvey through aggressive treatment for triple negative breast cancer. At a Survivors On Purpose meetup in May, Harvey is wearing a bright pink silk jacket giving other survivors makeovers, and encouragement.

“When women are going through the treatment they need to know there are other women who are going through the same thing,” she says.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Harvey was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 38.

Harvey was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 38 years old. About one-third of African-American women who get breast cancer are younger than 50Which is why awareness and early detection are key.

“African-American women need to be particularly aware of their screening recommendations,” Dr. Rao says. “And they need to make sure they undergo at least an exam by a physician every year starting at the age of 25.”

In the meantime, researchers like Rao are running clinical trials to try and identify what causes triple negative breast cancer.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.