Report: Black Women More Likely to Die of Breast Cancer Than White Women

But Boston has the smallest survival disparity in the country.

breast cancer

Illustration by Justin Renteria for “The Color of Cancer

A new report says black women in America are 43 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, strengthening a long-known connection between race and disease outcomes.

The study—funded by the Avon Foundation for Women and the work of Sinai Urban Health Institute and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—paints a troubling picture of health disparity in America. Not only is there a significant difference in black versus white breast cancer survival in major cities nationwide, the report says, the difference in mortality rates is actually on the rise, up from 39.7 percent in 2009.

If the report has a bright side, it’s that Boston was one of only three cities to see that survival gap narrow. In Boston, between 2005 and 2009, 33.4 per 100,000 black women died of breast cancer, compared to 22.4 per 100,000 white women. For the latest timespan studied, 2010 to 2014, that difference dropped to 21.1 deaths versus 20.9 deaths, representing a far less statistically significant gulf and a reduction in overall fatalities.

Memphis and Philadelphia also saw disparities lessen. Atlanta, on the other hand, tipped the scales the other way: It saw mortality rates for black women increase by 30 percent, while mortality rates for white women decreased by 38 percent.

The report is certainly jarring, but it raises the question: Why do these disparities exist in the first place?

Some of it is societal. Research has shown that socioeconomic factors play heavily into prognosis, as does access to healthcare. Other research has shown that many conditions, including breast cancer, simply haven’t been studied extensively enough in minority groups, though that’s beginning to change.

On the other hand, some of the difference may be genetic. A 2015 study from Massachusetts General Hospital found that African American women may actually be more likely to develop aggressive breast cancer tumors, which could partially explain why the disease is more frequently fatal for that population.

At the very least, the new report emphasizes the importance of more research on these topics, and the continued need for strong, equitable public health efforts.