I had my first mammogram at the age of 17. It was 1990 and just weeks before I was heading off to my freshman year in college. While some girls were still developing breasts at this age, I was getting mine checked out for lumps.
It all began one morning when I awoke with the most excruciating pain coming from my breasts. Naturally, I was terrified, and being a teenager, I couldn’t fathom that it was anything more than the fact that I slept in a weird position for the last 10 hours. But, deep down I knew better.
At that very moment, our family was coping with the fact that my paternal grandmother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and her daughter, my aunt, was a couple of years into her battle the disease as well. I knew this was serious and couldn’t possibly be sleeping in a weird position.
The fear of the unknown and the “what ifs” swirling around in my head were so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t bear taking that next step – seeing my gynecologist. Teenaged girls shouldn’t have to think about painful lumps in their breasts. But there I was.
After many tests (including a mammogram) and questions about my family history, the results were in. I had developed a couple of large cysts in one breast and a few smaller ones in the other. These cysts were largely due to my pretty unhealthy teenage diet — too much caffeine and too much fried food consumed on a regular basis. I was very relieved that I did not have to have a biopsy and just had to follow a very strict diet to help minimize the cysts. It was also discovered that I had very lumpy breasts and would need to conduct multiple self-breast examinations each month to ensure none were out of the ordinary, such as the growth of more cysts. Monitoring my breast health started earlier than I ever expected.
Given my family history, I was very fortunate that my cysts were not cancerous and that I was able to shrink them with a simple lifestyle change. However, many young women, especially African American women, are not as fortunate.
According to a report by the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women, especially at young ages.
“African American women develop breast cancer at younger ages when compared to white women,” says Regina Hampton, MD, FACS, Medical Director and co-founder of Breast Care for Washington in Washington, DC. She went on to say that “33 percent of African American women are diagnosed with breast cancer at an age less than 50 years, compared to 21.9% of white women, based on the results of a recent study published in CA Cancer.”
The study, which was published in April of this year, also stated that the incidence of breast cancer in African American women younger than 35 is 1.4 to 2.0 times that in white women.
Read more: What’s the risk for Hispanic women?
While this news may be disheartening to young African American women, there are preventive measures that can be done and intervention methods available to address problems early in breasts.
“Early detection, knowing your family history and adhering to treatment if diagnosed is critical to maintaining good breast health,” says Dr. Hampton. “But there are some other big things that young African American women should know about when it comes to breast cancer and taking care of themselves,” she also stated. Here are Dr. Hampton’s top 5 takeaways.
- The most important thing to know is that breast cancer is treatable when found at its earlier stages and when you follow treatment recommendations. African American women tend not to want to follow the recommendations and may refuse to have surgery out of fear. If you can find out what it is, then you can be treated. But, if you don’t know what it is then you can’t be treated.
- The five-year survival for stage 0 and stage 1 breast cancer are nearing 100%. Which means that when it is found early, those women have a higher survival rate as opposed to the women who are diagnosed at later stages.
- Know your family history! Find out which members of your family had/have breast cancer on both your mother and father sides of the family, as well as the age of their diagnosis. The age is important because if your grandmother was 42 at diagnosis, then the women in your family should be getting mammograms ten years earlier at age 30 or 32. Encourage the older generations to talk about the history because it is crucial to the survival of the younger generation. It is important to have support from your family even if you don’t want to tell them about your situation.
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- Not every lump in the breast is cancerous. There a lot of non-cancerous lumps but anything that feels different needs to be further evaluated to be sure there is no cancer. Do breast self-exams and if something feels different, make an appointment to see your primary care physician or gynecologist who will then refer you to a breast specialist.
- When you are asked to come back after receiving a mammogram, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything cancerous. It may be that you need further testing to take a closer look at the breast tissue. For those women who may need to have a biopsy, generally only two out of 10 (biopsies) are cancerous.
“Breast cancer is not just a white women’s disease,” says Dr. Hampton. “We need to be more aware as young African American women. Being proactive, being informed and being your own health advocate is the key to optimal breast health.”
TapGenes Takeaway: African American women develop breast cancer at younger ages. Find out the 5 things you need to know if you are ages 18-35.
Read more on TapGenes:
- Breast cancer: Know your risk
- Talk to a doctor if breast cancer runs in your family
- Why breast density matters so much
Stacey C. Penny, MSW, MPH is an expert in maternal and child health, racial and health inequities, and non-profit management. With advanced degrees in both social work and public health, Stacey has worked with national non-profit child and family focused organizations for 17 years, including the National Healthy Start Association where she was the Executive Director. She recently launched The Penny Consulting Group.