How cutting-edge medical care becomes optional for African Americans

By | July 11, 2017

When a woman under age 45 is diagnosed with breast cancer, national guidelines recommend that she undergo genetic testing for cancer-predisposing mutations. With the test results, a younger breast cancer patient is better equipped to answer some of the difficult questions she confronts after a diagnosis. Should she undergo major, disfiguring surgery—a double mastectomy—to lower her risk of developing another cancer? Are her family members also at risk for cancer, and should they be screened more often?

Thanks to the national guidelines, more and more breast cancer patients now take genetic tests—but only if they’re white. According to a study published last year—which looked at genetic testing among 3,000 breast cancer patients in Pennsylvania and Florida—black patients were less than half as likely as white patients to undergo genetic testing. Why?

The researchers looked at several factors that might explain this racial difference, such as whether there were differences in tumor characteristics between black patients and white patients, or differences in a family history of breast cancer—both factors that a doctor must consider before deciding whether a genetic test will likely benefit a particular patient. Also, because black patients and white patients tended to see different oncologists, the researchers also tried to figure out whether differences in the doctors’ age, training, or attitude toward genetic testing were important. (Pacific Standard)

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