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Women of Color With Breast Cancer Face Unique Challenges

Women of Color With Breast Cancer Face Unique Challenges
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Published on June 24, 2020

Women of Color With Breast Cancer Face Unique Challenges

A breast cancer diagnosis can be emotionally overwhelming for any woman. For black women, it can be devastating.

While African American women are less likely to die of breast cancer today than they were 25 years ago, they have a 42 percent higher death rate (31.0 per 100,000) than white women, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer also continues to be diagnosed at later stages in black women compared to white women.

Maimah Karmo, founder and executive director of the Tigerlily Foundation, and Angela “Jersi” Baker, who created the Angel in Disguise nonprofit, know about the struggle firsthand.

Karmo was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in 2006 at age 32. Her daughter was three years old at the time. Baker was initially diagnosed in 2003, also at age 32, and became metastatic in 2011.

“…many women are single parents,” Karmo told Patient Power's Andrea Hutton last month during a conversation about racial disparities in healthcare. “I'm the biggest advocate, but there are times when I'm raising my daughter, she is 17 now, but she's had — has chronic health issues, and I'm trying to run an organization and empower other people. And I may be like, ‘I'll go up tomorrow, or I'll go next week,’ and I do go to my appointments.

“But the women who are in a different situation, who are working an hourly wage, they're facing some real challenges around, ‘Do I make this choice of going to get screened or follow up with my treatment? Or do I feed my one or two kids? Because I have no husband. I don't have a husband. I don't have any way to pay my bills if I don't pay myself or work my work, I don't get paid.’”

Both Tigerlily, based in Stone Ridge, Virginia, and Angel in Disguise, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, provide a variety of services, including transportation to appointments, light errands, meal preparation, financial assistance and prayer lines.

Baker told stories of driving patients to and from doctor’s visits, treatment, and chemotherapy sessions. She said the outbreak of novel coronavirus has added even more complications to the lives of the women she’s trying to help.

“For some people, this, on top of breast cancer, is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back, because they can't cope with this,” she said. “As African American women, we're worrying about how we're going to feed our children and pay for these doctor bills and things of that nature, so sometimes treatment is the last thing that we're doing and taking care of ourselves.

“And when that happens, your cancer, like Maimah said, may be in your body for a few months, and you don't even know it. And instead of dealing with it, and maybe helping yourself, you may be hindering yourself because of transportation or whatever issues, finances. That's just our reality. It's difficult.”

Karmo added that some black women with breast cancer experience mental health issues because they are alone and stressed. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is compounding those issues.

“Some people already have mental health issues,” she said. “They're already dealing with anxiety, depression, panic disorders. They might have other things like schizophrenia, God knows whatever. And those are real, real challenges. I have friends who are facing those. And you compound that with the breast cancer diagnosis and/or you're in treatment. You compound that with the fact that maybe now you're metastatic, and then you add on top of that COVID. People are cracking.”

Besides direct help services, Tigerlily and Angel in Disguise have goals beyond the basics. Tigerlily offers education programs and lobbies corporations and medical groups, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology, to increase access to treatments and clinical trials.

Karmo said she also wants to change the conversation around mental health. She told the story of a suicidal patient overwhelmed by her diagnosis and life.

Besides direct help services, Tigerlily and Angel in Disguise have goals beyond the basics. Tigerlily offers education programs and lobbies corporations and medical groups, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology, to increase access to treatments and clinical trials.

Karmo said she also wants to change the conversation around mental health. She told the story of a suicidal patient overwhelmed by her diagnosis and life.

“I  see a therapist now, because I have people I love who are metastatic and are dying all the time,” she said. “And at first I thought, ‘I got this. I'm a strong black woman. I don't need to go to therapy.’ …You take care of yourself, put on your own mask first. But there are patients who are facing a real mental health crisis that's not being addressed because of COVID and the lack of access.” 

Watch the video or read the transcript: Women of Color With Breast Cancer Advocate for Change.

~Megan Trusdell

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References

Tigerlily Foundation
Angel in Disguise, Inc.

This article is part of Patient Power’s ongoing commitment to educate and advocate for healthcare equity and inclusiveness for all impacted by cancer, and to continually grow our outreach and support.

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