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Mortality Rates for Black Women with Breast Cancer and COVID-19 Show Health Inequity, Injustice

Racial health inequities exist throughout the U.S. health care system. Where you live should not determine if you live, but it does for so many people – particularly if you are Black. Across the country, Black women often don’t have access to the care they need or lack affordable health care coverage. As a result, Black women are about 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer compared to white women.

The same has been true for Black women and men during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has disproportionately impacted Black communities – while Black men and women only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are 40 percent more likely to die from COVID-19.

The global pandemic has shed a light on long existing racial health inequities that contribute to tragic disparities in outcomes. The pandemic will eventually end, but the drivers of racial health inequities will not, unless we all work together now to change our future.

As we look for solutions to drive more equitable care, we are required to look back and understand how we got to where we are. By becoming a change agent in our communities, we can focus on disrupting the systems in place and the behaviors, including racism, that are perpetuating health inequities and injustice.

Too often, Black patients are treated differently by their health care providers, leading to unnecessary barriers to care. Black patients are often not informed about lifesaving treatment options, such as clinical trials, or the support that exists to help them navigate the health care system.

And on the non-medical side, social determinants of health such as employment, income, housing, transportation, childcare and education are driving health disparities. These social determinants result in varying levels of privilege, power and opportunity that are directly linked to health disparities. 

Susan G. Komen’s African American Health Equity Initiative (AAHEI) was formed to address existing breast cancer disparities in the black community. Komen is focusing its work initially in the 10 metropolitan areas where breast cancer disparities are the greatest: Memphis, St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., VA Beach, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Dallas. While Black women are about 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women nationally, that disparity is higher in these metropolitan areas and as high as 74 percent in Memphis. Similarly, in seven of the 10 cities, Black men and women account for more than 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths. 

Komen’s commitment to eliminating barriers and reducing disparities in breast cancer outcomes for Black women includes:

  • CONNECTING Black breast cancer patients to high quality care and overcoming barriers in the health care system through patient navigation
  • EMPOWERING patients with evidence-based information about breast cancer, their rights as a breast cancer patient, and options along care pathways
  • SPARKING research discoveries that will provide improved treatments and care that overcome the drivers of disparities
  • SUPPORTING young Black scientists with funding to advance their research careers, to ensure diversity in research leadership
  • SPEAKING truth to power in our state and national capitols by elevating the voice of Black breast cancer patients in public policy advocacy

There is no question the COVID-19 pandemic has once again amplified racial health inequities in our country. The headlines announcing the racial disparities in infection and death rates due to COVID-19 complications should come as no surprise, but rather a clear and expected outcome.

But it is time for systemic inequities and other underlying causes of health disparities to end so that where you live, and your race, doesn’t determine if you live. A Black woman diagnosed with breast cancer in Chicago should have the same chances of overcoming her disease as her white neighbor – and both should have the same chance as woman in New York City or Cleveland. To get to that desired outcome, all of us – government, business, healthcare, faith-based organizations, education, etc. – must prioritize racial health equity for Black women and men.