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The Myth That Cancer Does Not Discriminate

Cancer does not discriminate. It's an often-repeated phrase, used to highlight the prevalence of cancer. This idea behind it is that whether you are young, old, poor, rich, Black, White, we all face an equal risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, like many other aspects of our society, cancer does in fact discriminate. Below we provide 10 research findings on breast cancer specifically that highlight the unequal nature of a breast cancer diagnosis. These studies highlight that breast cancer affects social groups differently and while some of this difference is due to the insidious nature of cancer itself, some of these findings are due to systemic and societal inequalities that become highlighted when we look at health.

Research Findings

  1. Results from a study by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto found that trans Canadians were 70% less likely to get screened for breast cancer.1 It has been suggested that this is due to lack of information that non-cis women can get breast cancer, as well as negative experiences within the healthcare system.2
  1. Older women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. According to Public Health Canada, 83% of breast cancer cases occur in women over 50 years old.3
  1. While ethno-racial immigrant women in Ontario were found to have lower incidence rates of breast cancer, they had a higher rate of advanced breast cancer, poorer five-year survival rates and higher rates of death. Reasons for this range from disparities in mammography screening to system barriers.4
  1. Women who have a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have been found to have up to a 72% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. A New York study on breast cancer found that Ashkenazi Jewish women have a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer which may be due to them have a higher risk of having a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.5
  1. In a study based on 375,000 American women diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer between 2004 and 2011, researchers found that Black women were more likely to die than Japanese and White women. 6
  1. Data from 1999 to 2014 shows that Black American women have a lower incidence rate (chance of getting breast cancer) but have higher death rates compared to White American women. In this same study, Black American women are more likely to get triple-negative breast cancer, a very aggressive type of breast cancer, than White American women. 7
  1. Dr. Nnorom examined  2,000 studies published between 2003 and 2018 on cervical and breast cancer in Canada  and found that only 23 of them focused on Black Canadians.8 According to what she found, Black Caribbean women got screened at a similar rate to White Canadian women compared to Black women from sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Nnorom concluded that limited data means that inequalities can’t be properly address which contributes to systemic racism in the Canadian health care system.
  1. Stats from Quebec show that lower-income women with breast cancer, compared to middle- and upper-income women, have worse outcomes.9
  1. Income class from childhood has been found to impact risk of breast cancer. Studies from Scotland have found women from lower-income households when they were children, compared to women from middle- and upper-income households when they were children, hade higher rates of breast cancer. They were also more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age.10 
     
  2. Even the stage of breast cancer can impact patients differently. In a 2018 study conducted by the Canadian Breast Cancer Network, 57% of metastatic breast cancer reported that their diagnosis had a very large negative financial impact. This is compared to 43% of early stage breast cancer patients who reported experiencing the same.

As these statistics show, whether it is due to age, race, gender, economic class or diagnosis, breast cancer impacts everyone differently. These are just some of the many findings of the inequalities and disparities of breast cancer that highlight the unfortunate fact that cancer does discriminate.

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash