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For Black women, breast cancer hits harder and more often: Three women share their stories

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New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Novant Health hosted a women's wellness event for breast cancer awareness month to encourage women to get mammograms.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women and accounts for 30% of newly diagnosed invasive cancers. But African American women are especially at risk — their chance of survival is lower than any other group.

According to the American Cancer Society, African American women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer. The reasons? Lack of awareness, less access to healthcare, and failure to get regular checkups, with appropriate follow-up.

Aneesah Armstrong

When forty-two year-old Aneesah Armstrong went to the doctor in May of 2021 to get her very first mammogram. She went in without any worries because she thought, “cancer doesn’t run in my family.” But the mammogram discovered a spot.

”It was only seven millimeters. And so I had a second mammogram," Armstrong said.

And the second mammogram raised more concern.

“They did an ultrasound to look at it closer. And they were still concerned. And then that same day, they did a biopsy on it. And I had my results in a couple of days," Armstrong said.

Aneesah Armstrong was told she had breast cancer.

She had never felt anything unusual or had any symptoms that would have led her to believe something was wrong. But she says she’s thankful she got the mammogram when she did.

“Just because 40 is a magic age to get a mammogram, a lot of people get breast cancer in their 30s and because the disease is so silent, you know, by the time it’s caught it's stage four," Armstrong said.

She urges all women to do self-exams and pay attention to their bodies outside of mammogram checks. She received a lumpectomy in August 2021 and is currently going through radiation.

At a recent health and wellness event hosted by New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Novant Health, experts urged all women — especially African American women — to get mammograms.

Sarah Arthur is Manager of Community Engagement at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

“This event is trying to highlight breast health equity. So we wanted to make sure that we highlight that whether you have fear or access issues or you're not quite sure if you are eligible for a mammogram...don't let those things stop you from getting your mammogram," Arthur said.

Bawana Jackson-Turner

Bawana Jackson-Turner is a sonographer, who conducts mammograms and ultrasound testing. Known to her friends as BJ, she’s a strong advocate for getting mammograms every year. But when she got her own results in 2020, the tables were turned.

“A very close friend of mine, that I worked with, told me that they saw some suspicious areas and they wanted to do a biopsy," Jackson-Turner said.

This time, BJ was the one getting the news.

“I was at work in the hospital, when she called," Jackson-Turner said.

BJ was 55 when she was diagnosed. Breast cancer didn’t run in her family, but there were other forms of cancer.

“It’s humbling ... You know, I've been on the other side, trying to help a patient through this and now I’m the patient," Jackson-Turner said.

She had double mastectomies and reconstruction surgery and was grateful she did not have to go through chemo or radiation.

Based on her experience as a patient and a healthcare worker, BJ wants all women to know, “early detection is the key.”

According to the American Cancer Society, Black women are more likely to get screened at nonaccredited facilities with fewer resources, to go longer between mammograms, and to wait longer for a follow-up exam after getting an abnormal result.

Stephanie Wheeler is Professor of Health Policy and Management at UNC and Associate Director of Community and Engagement at the Lineberger Cancer Center.

She says lack of health insurance is a major problem.

“A big barrier for so many people is either not having insurance, health insurance at all, or not having generous enough coverage to feel like you're not going to get slammed," Wheeler said.

Another problem, Wheeler says, is mistrust of the medical system within the Black community — a mistrust that prevents early diagnosis and follow-ups.

Mildred Bethea

Mildred Bethea's story is an example of why early detection is so important. When she discovered a lump in her breast in 2002 she ignored it.

”I was heading to Vegas and I kind of was in denial and it was like that's not a lump you know that just the whole thing that we do as humans," Bethea said.

When she finally went to see her primary care doctor, she was referred to a surgeon. At 41, Bethea was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer — the most aggressive and hardest to treat form of the disease.

“Now I'll never forget when my doctor, he really just described it as the Tasmanian devil of you know, breast cancer and, of course, being African American. There are so many things that it seems like when it attacks us it attacks worse," Bethea said.

Bethea's mother and aunt both had breast cancer. She followed in her mom’s footsteps and received a mastectomy. But that was just the beginning.

“Myself, I had to go through six months of physical needle in the arm, hard chemotherapy, hair loss, you know, the whole nausea, the weight loss, the sores in the mouth, like I had to go through that treatment," Bethea said.

She cites her faith as one of the many reasons that, 19 years later, she's still here.

“Nobody but my creator baby, my creator, the one who saw fit for me to even exist in time, the one who carried me through everything that I've been through...there's a greater source than all of us," Bethea said.

Mildred, BJ, and Aneesah are grateful to be alive.

“Had I not gone when I did, my situation would have been way different," Armstrong said.

But doctors and experts agree the way for Black women — and all women -- to stay healthy is clear: be aware of your bodies, conduct self-exams, and get mammograms with regular follow-ups.

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