At the age of 27, Tanisha Freeman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years later, she is cancer free and working to raise awareness for other young African-American women who may be at risk for developing the disease.

“Most of the time they tell you do not get your mammograms ‘til 40 and I was diagnosed at 27, so I’m trying to change the face of breast cancer. Every time I tell someone they ask me how old I am; so I’m trying to raise awareness,” Freeman said. “It’s not hereditary in my family. I don’t even carry the gene for cancer.”

BREAST CANCER AWARENESS—Talaya Thomas, Tenisha Freeman and mother Gina Saunders. (Photo by Erin Perry)

While African-American women are less likely to develop breast cancer than their White counterparts, their cancers are more advanced when discovered and have a poorer prognosis. Black women are also more likely to develop breast cancer earlier in life.

On Oct. 28, Freeman hosted a Happy Hour at Chocolate City Bar in Homewood to raise awareness about the deadly disease. The event also raised $400 to be donated to Susan G. Komen For the Cure, a breast cancer organization that has invested nearly $2 billion for breast cancer research, education, advocacy, health services and social support programs over the past two decades.

“This was our second year and it almost doubled in the amount of people,” Freeman said. “With my age range and the age I hang around, it’s important to raise awareness. So many people my age have never thought to do self exams.”

From age 20 to 50, Black women are twice as likely to die from breast cancer than White women. Researchers believe this could be due to a lack of early detection among African-American women.

African-American women are also at increased risk for an aggressive and difficult-to-treat type of breast cancer known as “triple negative.” This type of cancer lacks three hormone receptors, and thus the cancer cannot be controlled with commonly-used drugs such as tamoxifen.

“Triple negative breast cancer isn’t a death sentence, but compared to some of these other breast cancers, the prognosis is poorer. In general people with triple negative breast cancer are younger,” said Dr. Larry Wickerham, chief of cancer genetics and prevention at Allegheny General Hospital. “Why is it found at a higher rate in African-American women, we don’t know. But is it a fact? Yes.”

The National Cancer Institute recommends that women age 40 or older have screening mammograms every one to two years. They also recommend that women who are at higher risk for developing breast cancer consult with their health care provider about whether they should begin having mammograms prior to age 40.

“Because breast cancer is more common in African-Americans under the age of 40, they need to be having regular physical exams. Mammograms should still begin at age 40, and I’d also be encouraging them to examine themselves on a monthly basis,” Wickerham said. “If they develop a breast cancer, one of the ways we’ve been able to improve treatment is through medical research. There are two few African-American women who go into clinical research trials for breast cancer.”

Despite evidence that shows mammograms can reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, many insurance companies will not cover mammograms for those under 40 and still others, mostly those who are underinsured, do not have them covered at all. However, a program funded through the Race for the Cure provides vouchers for mammograms for those in need.

“One of the advantages we have here in Pittsburgh is the Race for the Cure and a lot of those dollars go to a mammogram voucher program throughout the year,” Wickerham said. “Most of the women who get these vouchers are employed, but they don’t have good insurance.”

For more information, call Adagio Health at 1-800-215-7474.

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