Although genes often play a big role in our chances of both acquiring and surviving from certain cancers, it is important to remember that DNA is not the only factor in cancer survival rates. A new report has revealed that while overall survival rates of women with breast cancer has increased over a period of 20 years, the survival rates of black women with breast cancer has significantly dropped. However, instead of looking at genetic differences to account for this increasing discrepancy between black and white breast cancer survivals rates, researchers turned to socio-economic factors for the answer. What they found is a shocking reflection of the racial divide that still exists in the United States.   

The study was conducted on the 50 largest cities in the United States and spanned a time period of 20 years. It compared the breast cancer mortality rates of American women from the 1990s to mortality rates in the 2000s. Results found that although a gap between white and black mortality rates due to breast cancer existed in the 1990s, it had significantly widened nearly ten years later, Reuters reported. A lack of consistency in the widening gap throughout the surveyed cities invalidated DNA playing a role. For example, in New York City, the largest city to participate in the study, the gap in mortality rates stayed constantly at 18 percent, while the rate in Memphis, Tenn. started at 27 percent and more than doubled by the second survey. “If genetics were responsible… we would not have seen the rates go from being nearly equal in most places at the first time point to being so much worse for black women than white women at the last point,” Bijou Hunt, lead author of the report, told Reuters.

Since the 1990s there have been many more advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. This has accounted for the overall decrease in mortality rates. However the truth stands that black women were more likely to be uninsured and therefore do not have access to these life-saving technologies. “Most of the disparities are actually due to access to care and access to quality care. This is an ethical and moral problem that we in the United States have yet to come to grips with,” Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, told Reuters.

From this study, it is hoped that the socio-economic differences, which have caused this widening gap between black and white breast cancer survival rates, can be addressed and mended. “This is not new science; this is getting old science to the people who deserve it because they are human beings. This is where we as a society are failing," Brawley said.

Source:  Hunt BR, Whitman S, Hurlbert MS. Increasing Black: White disparities in breast cancer mortality in the 50 largest cities in the Unities States. Cancer Epidemiology. 2013; 634