Ellen DeGeneres fan favorite Lisa Jarmon, who was discovered and interviewed after her very energetic presence in the crowd at The Ellen Show caught Ellen’s eye, became a force for positivity, excitement and gratitude on the show. Now, she has passed away from breast cancer, and there’s been an outpouring of love and loss in the SurvivorNet community.
Lisa Jarmon was known for her incredible optimism. “I never say that I’m poor. I never say that I’m struggling. Because to me I’m not. To me I just live like I live. All my energy comes from the Lord up above,” she said in an Ellen interview. Her effusive reactions to Ellen’s many gifts have become beloved. “No, no, no, no, no!” she yelled on the show. “Don’t do that!”Read More
“The world isn’t the same without Lisa Jarmon,” Ellen tweeted and Instagrammed about the news.
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We don’t know everything about Jarmon’s case, but we do know that African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than other women. “African American women when compared to white women have a 40% higher death rate for breast cancer, even though [African American women] have the same occurrence rate,” according to Dr. Senayet Agonofar, Radiologist and Breast Imaging Specialist at Lenox Hill Radiology, which is an affiliate with RadNet. “Even for stage one breast cancers, [they] die at a much higher rate. So there’s a discrepancy here that we need to address.”
“My recommendation is to strongly talk to your primary care physician, starting at the age of 30 at least, to get a assessment of what your risks stratification is for breast cancer. Once you do that, you should absolutely be getting screening breasts mammograms once a year, starting at the age of 40, being African American,” says Dr. Agonofar. “And besides that you should get a risk assessment by your doctor to see if you have a BRCA gene, which is also known to be higher in African American women, and to see if your family history precludes you to getting screening by MRI as well.”
One possible reason for the discrepancy has to do with the actual types of tumors that certain women develop. “There’s a lot of research in this area and some of it actually may be to do with the types of tumors that women from certain communities will develop,” says Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, director of the High-Risk Cancer Genetics Program at Perlmutter Cancer Center, NYU Langone Health.
For example, the very dangerous “triple negative” breast cancer is more common in African American women. “There’s a type of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer, which is harder to treat, unfortunately. It’s a more aggressive disease,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “This tends to be more common among African American women who develop breast cancer and is a reason why it’s so important to understand global patterns of breast cancer risk.”
There’s a lot of research being done in this area. “Some of the research that we do at NYU and my own research in global health is looking at differences in populations outside the US and to learn from that to see how that might make us improve the services here,” says Dr. Ginsburg.
Dr. Ophira Ginsburg on the importance of genetic testing for cancer risk.
But there is also a big difference in risk of death for black women with the same kinds of tumors as white women. “In the case of African American women, even if we take out that issue and we only look at the same tumor type that they have that everyone else with breast cancer tends to have, hormone-positive disease, we still see a disparity.”
That means that there are probably cultural, non genetic issues at play. “…So there are probably socioeconomic causes of this,” concludes to Dr. Ginsburg. “It may be an access issue. It may have to do with how often women from an African American community, particularly if she’s poor, has been given the same recommendations and has the same opportunity and health insurance to cover the treatments and to help her get everything she needs, including assistance, whether it’s with her job or with childcare, etc., to make it through a full course of treatment effectively. That includes management also of the toxicities associated if she needs chemotherapy.”
A lot of people are worried about the discrepancy, and are organizing to take action. “If you’re concerned about cancer disparities in this country, you’re not alone,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “Fortunately, there are efforts in place and increasing opportunities to engage either at the community level in terms of political activism in action and also together with the National Cancer Institute that are developing programs, policies, and also research.”
The Moonshot Initiative and Union for International Cancer Control are some of Dr. Ginsburg’s favorites. “A really nice example of this is V.P. Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative. One of the goals of that Moonshot Initiative is to help reduce disparities in access to cancer services. I would also encourage you to look at the Union for International Cancer Control,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “Now, that’s a group you might not have heard of. That is an umbrella organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, [which] works closely with the World Health Organization, and many cancer centers in the United States, including ours, are partners and members with the UICC.”
“The UICC is really all about cancer advocacy and it offers all kinds of cool stuff on their website to encourage you to take home with you to reduce your own cancer risks and also to get the word out of how you can help to reduce disparities in your own community,” she says. “So take a look at UICC.org for more information.”