Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed in women after skin cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer even though they get it at lower rates when compared to white women.
For Sandra Donaldson, 50, her breast cancer diagnosis was stunning when her doctor delivered the news she had HER2 positive breast cancer in December of 2018.
The mother of two says she’d always get her annual mammogram, so questions mounted in her head wondering how she could be in this position. After the shock wore off, she redirected her focus to “how do I save my life?”
HER2 positive breast cancer is more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. Donaldson knew her sister had been previously diagnosed with breast cancer so before moving forward with a surgery option, she sought genetic testing.
Donaldson eventually underwent lumpectomy surgery that was followed by 12 weeks of chemotherapy, 19 rounds of radiation, hormone therapy and medication. Donaldson did her best to incorporate treatments into her weekly routine without missing much time at work. “I went every day to chemotherapy with my laptop in my lap, and I had it done on Friday so I can be sick all weekend,” she said.
Donaldson is the chief advocacy officer for Community Health Northwest Florida, which serves as a community health clinic providing care and services to underserved communities. Donaldson says usually she is directing people in need to resources, but amid her breast cancer diagnosis, she found herself seeking out resources.
Typically, resources can include assistance with purchasing wigs and bras, help with child care, and transportation to and from breast cancer treatments. Such aid also can include financial assistance for uninsured or underinsured for mammogram screenings.
Breast cancer impacts Black women differently compared to other racial groups and is more deadly. Dr. Lynn Baxter director of breast imaging with Northside Radiology Associates and Northside Hospital in Atlanta, says Black women aged 45 and younger are diagnosed with breast cancer at high rates compared to white women.
“Unfortunately for that younger age group, the type of breast cancer that is more common among African-American women tend to be some of the more aggressive types of breast cancer, so a lot of times they are found a bit later and are more challenging to treat,” Dr. Baxter said.
Baxter says genetic mutations that can lead to more aggressive forms of breast cancer also impact Black women more often than in other groups. Disparities in health care service are another reason Black women tend to be more impacted by breast cancer. Baxter encourages all women to get regular mammogram screenings beginning at 40 years old and if there’s a family history of breast cancer, consider annual screenings at 30 years old.
“The recommendation is for every woman get their risk evaluated by the time she’s 30, and if she is someone at higher risk, she would know to start getting her checkups earlier and hopefully catch something before it has time to grow and become more serious,” Baxter said.
Donaldson is still taking medication as part of her treatment. Since beginning her breast cancer journey, she has been a staunch advocate for breast cancer awareness and sharing access to resources for underserved women of color. She helped create the ‘Courage to Conquer’ fund to help cover costs associated with breast cancer diagnosis.
“A scholarship that could pay for rent, new bras after a mastectomy and something very important a lot of people may not think of — a wig.” Donaldson went on to say, “I put my wig on and came to work, but what about the mom who’s working at the Family Dollar or the drive-thru that is sick and has to stay home and has small children who she has to feed, she’s going to miss some days of work.
She may not have the paid time off that I had or a laptop she can put in her lap while she goes to chemotherapy.”
For women diagnosed with breast cancer and need extra help, both Dr. Baxter and Donaldson suggests talking with your doctor or visit your community health clinic for additional resources that can make your breast cancer journey easier on your wallet and alleviate the sudden stress.