According to a publication from Breastcancer.org, black women are more likely than others to develop triple-negative breast cancer at some point in their lives. A study published by the journal Cancer in 2015 suggests that this may be because black women are more likely to have abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, segments of DNA that are associated with an increased risk for the development of breast cancer.
Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
“Triple-negative” breast cancers are characterized by tumors that test negative for estrogen, progesterone, and HER2/neu receptors. These receptors play a key role in some common cancer treatments like hormone therapy. People with triple-negative breast cancer are ineligible for some of the most accessible, and effective forms of therapy.
What are the BRCA genes?
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are a pair of genes located on the 17th and 13th chromosomes, respectively. They’re responsible for coding proteins that suppress tumor development by repairing damaged strands of DNA. Mutations that inhibit the production of these proteins therefore reduce the body’s ability to fight growing tumors.
Although they are most often associated with breast cancer, BRCA mutations are also thought to be linked with increased risk for several other types of cancer. Men can be affected as well!
Racial bias affects understanding of health
Existing estimates suggest that around 5% of American women with diagnosed breast cancer have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
However, the study published in Cancer found a much higher rate of incidence among young (under 50) black women. Researchers found that 12.4% of the 396 participating women had a BRCA mutation of some kind.
The results suggest that black women may be especially prone to BRCA mutations. Race plays a significant role in how some conditions are expressed. Caucasians with northern European ancestry, for example, experience higher rates of multiple sclerosis – though it is known to occur world-round in most ethnic groups.
The discrepancy in BRCA occurrence between the prevailing medical estimates and the Cancer-published study seem to come from systematic inequalities in the research field. Many women who are minorities have less adequate access to health services like cancer screenings. Clinical drug trials are also heavily-skewed to under-represent people of color.
The research is a reminder that our understanding of medicine and health is often biased. It’s our duty to ensure greater access to vital health services like breast cancer screenings, because flawed participation in the laboratory yields flawed understanding.
How does gender and racial bias play a role in existing medical institutions? How could we improve diversity in health research? Share your thoughts with Patient Worthy!