Deadly choices: too many black women delaying breast cancer treatment

Felicia Mahone was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and now urges women to seek early treatment.
Felicia Mahone was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and now urges women to seek early treatment.

For most Americans, breast cancer is not a death sentence. Over three and a half decades, breast cancer death rates have dropped by almost 40 percent in the United States. But not all women have benefited equally.

“When you tell people you have breast cancer the look on their face changes,” Felicia Mahone said. “It’s a look like you’re going to die.”

After losing three aunts, her cousin, and her mother to breast cancer, Mahone learned a lump on her chest was the most aggressive form of breast cancer — triple negative. Testing later revealed she inherited a genetic mutation that increased her cancer risk. She was 27-years-old and uninsured. Mahone said the women in her family were silent about a disease that had killed so many of them.

The silence “is something that is common around African American women,” Mahone said. “I don’t know, I think it’s a sense of shame that people feel.”

American Cancer Society Epidemiologist Carol DeSantis’ research suggests a black woman diagnosed with breast cancer in Georgia is 45 percent more likely to die from the disease than a white woman. In Mississippi and Louisiana, the disparity is closer to 60 percent. In Massachusetts, there is almost no disparity.

“Overall in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are 40 percent higher in black women than white women,” DeSantis said.

Black women are getting mammograms and learning they have the disease, but DeSantis said medical data revealed some don’t seek treatment after their diagnosis.

“Sometimes it’s, ‘I can’t afford to go see the doctor.’ Sometimes it’s simply, ‘I have a job and I can’t take time off from my job,’” explained Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer with the American Cancer Society. He said economic disparities are a patient’s primary barrier from treatment.

Felicia Mahone, pictured here as a young girl, lost her mother to breast cancer and was diagnosed with breast cancer as an adult.
Felicia Mahone, pictured here as a young girl, lost her mother to breast cancer and was diagnosed with breast cancer as an adult.

Mahone said she was almost one those women. After fighting for care, even losing her job to get treatment, Mahone is now a patient advocate at Grady Memorial Hospital. She helps patients find health care resources and, most importantly, encouragement so other black women don’t feel like they need to face the disease alone. Mahone said those breast cancer patients are often making deadly choices. She told a story about one of those patients.

“She was diagnosed with breast cancer. So the next step was surgery and chemo and she said she couldn’t do that, because it didn’t fit into her schedule, because if she didn’t go to work her kids wouldn’t eat,” Mahone said. “I said, ‘If you don’t go back and you allow this to manifest your kids are not going to eat, they’re not going to have a place to live because they’re not going to have a mother.’ That is the norm.”

Dr. Brawley said delayed treatment means a long, painful disease, that could have been prevented.

“We see people (who) actually know they have breast cancer, know they have a problem, watch it grow for a long, long time, and ultimately, they come to us when it’s a disease that we can’t treat very effectively,” Brawley said.

Mahone said she hopes women will fight for treatment because so much pain and loss is preventable.

“If we would love ourselves as much as we love our children then, oh my god, the disparities that we have with this thing, with this breast cancer African American women, it would go away,” she said.

Jovita Moore is news anchor for Channel 2 Action News. Terah Boyd is special projects producer for Channel 2.

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