Racial Disparity in Cancer Care
- Shonte Drakeford says she’s accepted her mortality after receiving a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis; she advocated for herself for 10 years before getting her answer. But it won’t define her.
- Drakeford is using her story to educate other women about why it’s important to advocate for your own health. Otherwise, you might slip through the cracks of the system like she did.
- Black women having a 40% higher death rate from breast cancer. Among women under 50, the disparity is even greater.
Instead, she’s using her story to educate other women about why it’s vitally important to advocate for your own health. Otherwise, you might slip through the cracks of the system, just like Drakeford did.Read More
“I know that I’m probably going to die of this one day — I know it. Until then, I’m going to keep speaking out. Maybe if we keep having these conversations we can move that needle and reduce the number of deaths.”
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Racial Disparity in Cancer Care
Drakeford doesn’t know if her repeatedly dismissed symptoms were because they began when she was too young, or if because she’s Black. But, she adds, “I’m trying not to focus on the why, but rather on what’s next for me. I’m not telling my story to hurt or call out my previous doctors. I’m trying to prevent this from happening to anyone else.”
Black women were once found to have a slightly lower breast cancer incidence rate, but that’s no longer true. According to data compiled by the American Cancer Society and reported by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the breast cancer incidence rate for Black women is now close to that of white women.
“… the mortality rates are markedly different, with Black women having a 40 percent higher death rate from breast cancer. Among women under 50, the disparity is even greater: The mortality rate among young Black women is double that of young white women,” according to BCRF.
Linda Tantawi was previously the chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen New York City’s affiliate. (She’s now the CEO of The Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research.) While with the Komen organization, she en-enforced this sobering statistic — while Black women and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the same rate, Black women are 40% more likely to die. “And that is unacceptable,” she says.
“Disparities in access to care are prevalent throughout the United States and increases women’s risk of dying from breast cancer,” she adds.
“It is clear that the advances in treatment that have dramatically reduced breast cancer mortality overall have not equally benefited all groups,” according to BCRF. And that couldn’t be more apparent after hearing Drakeford’s story. It unfortunately isn’t an uncommon one.
More recently, four-time Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe, who’s also a Black woman, shared the story of receiving her breast cancer diagnosis. And her story is similar to Drakeford’s experience.
Lowe found a lump in her breast when she was 34. She asked her doctor for a mammogram when seeking medical attention for the lump, but her doctor said it was nothing to worry about. She didn’t need a mammogram until she was 40, the doctor said. Thankfully, Lowe didn’t listen. She said she believes if she listened to her doctor and waited, she wouldn’t have caught her cancer so early. Drakeford wasn’t so lucky.
Shonte’s Repeatedly Dismissed Metastatic Breast Cancer
The 37-year-old nurse practitioner writes that at the age of 25, she had her first breast cancer symptom — nipple discharge.
“As a nurse, I knew that the nipple discharge I was experiencing wasn’t normal,” she says. “I went to the doctor, but I was told not to worry about it — I was too young for breast cancer. Come back if the discharge becomes bloody, they said.”
Six years went by, and her symptoms continued to escalate, all while her treatment was either outright denied or delayed. Little did she know that her cancer was progressing into metastatic breast cancer because of her repeatedly dismissed worries.
She began to have painful periods and more nipple discharge. These symptoms led to a dilated breast duct diagnosis, but still, she was told it “wasn’t anything to be concerned about.”
“I developed cysts in my breasts. One cyst was larger; I could feel it with my fingers, so I asked for a mammogram. My doctor said no. Again I was told that I was too young. They believed it was a benign cyst anyway,” she details in her personal essay.
She eventually had surgery to remove the dilated breast duct. “Doctors could have biopsied my cyst during that surgery, but they chose not to. For almost a year after that surgery, that cyst gave me really intense pain. It became hard. Again I went to the doctor, and again I was told it wasn’t anything to worry about. It was just scar tissue, they said.”
It wasn’t just one doctor who dismissed her symptoms. During this time, Drakeford’s husband was serving in the Army and they were repeatedly moved around the country. She saw doctors in Alaska, Georgia and Washington state.
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Drakeford and her husband eventually moved back to her hometown of Washington, D.C. She began receiving her medical care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and that’s where she finally received her diagnosis: metastatic breast cancer.
“All at once I received the tests I had been requesting for years: an MRI, a mammogram, an ultrasound, a biopsy. The results confirmed that I had cancer. My doctors screened my entire body and found that cancer had already spread to my ribs, spine, hip, and lungs. I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.”
‘Listen to Your Body’
Drakeford’s body was screaming the warning signs of metastatic breast cancer, and she felt that she listened. But her doctors didn’t.
“I asked my doctor if I had not done enough. I felt like I did what I was supposed to do: I paid attention to my body, I went to the doctor every time I was concerned, I asked for all the tests. My doctor told me I did everything right,” Drakeford writes. “I just slipped through the cracks of the system.”
Being your own advocate is always important when it comes to cancer care. And by doing so, you can make sure that your doctor sees you as an individual.
“One of the biggest things that I did from the very beginning was asking the right questions,” Alex Echols, a patient advocate and lymphoma survivor, tells SurvivorNet. “It’s our lives on the line.” He credits these questions with making sure that doctors took him seriously and viewed him as a partner in his treatment. Echols, like Drakeford, is Black.
“It’s so important to listen to your body and to advocate for yourself,” Drakeford says.
She has some important advice for how to do just that: “Ask for a patient advocate — they’re there to fight for you and help you make sense of medical jargon and diagnoses. Bring a friend to your appointments. Take notes. Record your appointments so you can listen back to them later when you’re in a better mental place.”