Genetics Helps Us Better Understand and Treat Breast Cancer in Black Women

Jan 31, 2021 | Care, Research

For decades researchers have been seeking to better understand breast cancer, why it occurs, how to treat it and ultimately how to cure it. The more we learn, the more we understand that breast cancer is actually a family of diseases, each with specific genetic differences that can impact mortality.  Understanding genetics is key to developing more effective treatments, as well as eliminating disparities in breast cancer outcomes.

Black women are about 40 percent more likely than their white counterparts to die from breast cancer. One of the reasons is that Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a more aggressive and more deadly form of breast cancer, than white women. There are also other reasons for the higher mortality rate, including issues with access to care and the stage at which the breast cancer is detected.

A look at genetics and history can help us understand who is at greater risk of developing breast cancer so that we can save more lives.  

Historical situations or aspirations for a different life led people to leave Africa and settle all over the world. This is an important factor because the majority of Black women in the US, Britain and French Caribbean have roots in Nigeria and West Africa. Komen Scholar Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, Director, Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics and Global Health at the University of Chicago, is currently studying these genetic roots – information that will help us gain a better understanding of why some populations are more adversely impacted by breast cancer.

Dr. Olopade is an advocate for genetic testing, which has become one important way for women to understand their risk of developing breast cancer. Through genetic testing:

  • The identification of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes has helped researchers and doctors learn that women with a mutation of either gene are at a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers, while men have a higher risk of developing prostate and breast cancers.
  • We have learned that men or women with these mutated genes can pass them onto their children, giving them an inherited higher risk of developing cancers.
  • Doctors have been able to take preventive measures, such as surgeries to remove breasts and reproductive organs, to save more lives.
  • Women and men, too, with a higher risk have been able to take measures to reduce it, catch cancer early, and if detected, get into treatment sooner.
  • Doctors are able to identify which treatment options are likely to be the most effective.
  • Doctors can provide patients with more personalized care, from breast screening to cancer treatment, so that patients’ individual needs are met.

Genetic counseling, too, helps patients to understand their personal health history and make informed decisions about which preventive measures to take, and when. Trained professionals can talk with you about your risk, your options and your care. The information learned through genetic counseling is also helpful for family members, who may have inherited that same genetic risk.

Given advancements in technology, we can now provide genetic testing and counseling to help patients avoid or navigate disease, allowing for more personalized medicine and improvements in long term survival. However, many groups may lack access to these advancements, thus threatening a widening of the health disparities gap. Therefore, it’s not enough to just advance the technology. Efforts to improve access to and the utilization of advancements in care is also an important step in ensuring that genetic testing achieves its ultimate goal – improved outcomes for all patient populations but especially those most negatively impacted by breast cancer.

Visit komen.org/knowyourhistory today to learn more about genetic testing, your health history and your risk of developing breast cancer.