HEALTH – April 2013

Latinas & Breast Cancer

Despite great progress in the overall health of Americans in general, health disparities continue to persist in the burden of illness and death experienced by the Latino community. Breast cancer continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Latinas. Even though Latinas have lower breast cancer rates than Caucasian women, the decrease in incidence that has been seen nationally is less pronounced among Latinas when compared to other patient populations. Latinas have also been noted to be more likely to die of diagnosed breast cancer due to later diagnosis. For example, from 2002 to 2006, 55% of Latina breast cancers were diagnosed at the local stage, compared with 63% of non-Latina White breast cancers. These differences are linked to cultural and socioeconomic factors, resulting in delayed screening and follow-up. Latinas have also been found to have tumors that are larger and harder to treat than White women. Due to these disparities, Latinas remain approximately 20% less likely to survive breast cancer than non-Latinas. This is significant as Latinos are currently the largest US minority and, by 2030, will make up approximately one-third of the nation’s population.

Within Healthy People 2020, which consists of 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans, one of the goals is to increase breast cancer screening by 10% from the current 73.7% of females. However, for Latinas the current screening rate is only 68.3%, which suggests that a greater emphasis on increasing screening initiatives amongst Latinas needs to occur in order to account for the fact that, historically, Latina women have been less likely to utilize mammography services. Additionally, with cancer being the leading cause of death among Latinos, research and more aggressive intervention efforts to eliminate disparities are essential. Mainly, efforts need to be made to decrease the delay between abnormal mammogram and definitive diagnosis, which can be as great as three months in some Latinas.

Several studies have attempted to look into reasons why Latinas experience a delay in diagnosis. Undoubtedly, patients face the difficult challenge of understanding and navigating the highly complex nature of the health care system, while also dealing with the emotional and physical aspects of their health needs. In some cases, culturally specific health beliefs may lead to mistrust of the healthcare system. Female patients may also be lost to follow-up due to competing health, family, and work responsibilities while reduced access to care may also be an issue. Language issues, which may also result in poor physician-patient communication, also present a significant challenge to educating the patient.

Although many issues exist within the health system, it is important for Latinas to be aware of their bodies. It is most important to let your doctor know if you find a change in your breast, such as a lump or nipple discharge. As we are not yet aware of ways to prevent breast cancer, we must focus on what things can be done to reduce your risk, such as limiting how much alcohol you drink and being physically active. There also are things you can do to find breast cancer early, which leads to better outcomes because treatment is more effective and treatment options and survival rates are greater at that time. Breast cancer screening looks for signs of cancer before a woman has symptoms. Screening can help find breast cancer early when it’s most treatable. Clinical breast exams and mammograms, which should be done every 1-2 years starting at age 40, are commonly used to screen for breast cancer. Depending on factors such as family history and your general health, your doctor may recommend a mammogram before age 40.

About the Writer: Daniella Palermo, originally from Bronx, NY, is currently a third year medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. She is the co-founder                        and current president of SUNY Upstate’s Latino Medical Student Association, a national organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the health needs of the Latino community. LMSA members, including herself, are looking forward to continuing to contribute to CNY Latino and raising awareness regarding the many health issues affecting the Latinos of Central NY and beyond.

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