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Hispanic women have higher risk of breast cancer death

December 14, 2011 2:46:03 PM PST
Among Hispanic women, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. And though they don't get it as commonly as other women, they're at higher risk of death.

Lilian Guzman is only 38 and was surprised by what she calls her New Year's gift at the end of 2010: breast cancer. It started with a lump she noticed in her breast.

"They sent me to mammogram...And they found it," she says.

Guzman says she reads the news and is aware of how unusual it is for young women to have the cancer, and she knows that mammograms generally should begin at age forty. But not every Latina knows those things, as Dr. Madhuri Devabhaktuni of New York's Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care explains.

"There are mainly socio-economic reasons, lack of education, lack of awareness of breast cancer, getting screening done," she says, listing hypotheses to explain the higher risk. "We think that there may be a biological reason."

There may a genetic reason why chemotherapy that works to kill other women's cancers just doesn't work as well for Hispanic women. And Latinas often don't come to doctors early on, but only when their cancers have progressed, which can sometimes be explained by cultural reasons.

For example, they may have started getting ill in their native country. Guzman is from the Dominican Republic, where mammograms are expensive, and checking your breasts for lumps is not well-perceived.

"Women touching themselves...That's taboo,"she says.

Dr. Devabhaktuni adds that some Latinas even feel guilt that some sexual behavior in the past may have brought the cancer upon them as retribution. But both doctor and patient agree on one thing: prevention and education are the key to preventing more deaths.

The Ralph Lauren Center is doing its part through outreach programs for patients, community leaders and groups. There are lecture series, screening events and health fairs.

To find out more about their programs, visit their website: www.ralphlaurencenter.org.

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