Breast cancer accounts for nearly one in three cancers among women living in the United States. Between 2008 and 2012, breast cancer rates among African-American women have risen to match the high rates among white women, a new statistical report reveals. Rates among Asian women have shown the most dramatic increase, while rates remain stable for Hispanics, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and white women, the researchers said.

Among American women, only skin cancer is more common than breast cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer and 40,290 deaths are expected in 2015. The report was conducted by a research team headed by Dr. Ahmedin Jemal, vice president of the Surveillance and Health Services Research Program at the Cancer Society. His investigations primarily focus on disparities in cancer rates among people of different ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic positions.

Troubling Increase Among Asian/Pacific Islanders

Overall, American Indian/Alaska Natives have the lowest incidence of breast cancer, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders both have slightly higher rates, while African-American women and European American women have the highest rates as of 2012, according to research. Between 2008 and 2012, Jemal and his team found the incidence of breast cancer increased most dramatically among Asian/Pacific Islanders (1.5 percent per year), yet also among African-American women (0.4 percent per year). Rates remained stable among whites, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaska Natives during the same time period.

Breast Cancer Incidence
Breast Cancer Incidence Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Some good news: More than 3.1 million survivors were alive on Jan. 1, 2014, the most recent statistical date. Most of these women were cancer-free, while others were undergoing treatment.

Deaths from breast cancer have dropped by a rate of 36 percent since 1989. This translates to 249,000 breast cancer deaths averted. Specifically, death rates declined annually by 1.8 percent in whites, 1.5 percent in Hispanics, 1.4 percent in blacks, and 1.0 percent in Asian/Pacific Islanders, but remained unchanged among American Indians/Alaska Natives, from 2003 through 2012. Most importantly, screening rates are high, though they need to rise higher. In 2013, more than two-thirds of women over the age of 45 reported having a mammogram within the past two years.

Aggressive Tumors More Common Among Blacks

Though improving, the picture is not entirely rosy. In 2012, rates were higher in black women than white women in seven states: Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. While the reason for rising incidence in African-American women is not clear, the authors note that the increase in incidence may reflect rising rates of obesity. Worse still, black women are more likely to be diagnosed at later stages and have lower survival rates at each stage of diagnosis. Here, the researchers said the reason for this may include lack of regular screening and/or follow-up of suspicious results, lack of access to quality treatment, and higher proportion of aggressive tumors.

Importantly, black women are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancers, an aggressive breast cancer subtype linked to poorer survival.

Source: DeSantis CE, Fedewa SA, Sauer AG, et al. Breast Cancer Statistics 2015: Convergence of Incidence Rates Between Black and White Women. CA Cancer J Clin. 2015.