De-mystifying the “C” Word: Myths about cancer can prove hazardous to your health

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No one wants to hear the words: “You have breast cancer.” But thanks to advances in breast cancer treatments and the increased use of mammograms, they do not have to be a death sentence if the cancer is caught early. Among African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer, 75 percent survive for five years, compared with 89 percent of white women. Reasons for this disparity include lack of reliable health insurance, poor nutrition and health, and even treatment differences between black and white women. The most critical reason, however, is lack of early detection among Blacks. Furthermore, health-related myths in African-American culture can keep victims from receiving life-saving care.

Myth #1: What I don’t know won’t hurt me.
“In the African American community, the secrecy and shame associated with cancer is not like it used to be, but it’s still there,” says Kathie-Ann P. Joseph, M.D., assistant professor of surgery (breast service, surgical oncology) and director of research in general surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City. Women who have a first-degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) with a history of breast cancer have about twice the risk of developing the disease compared to those without the family history, she says.

In 2003, when LaShawn Wilson, of the Bronx, N.Y., discovered a lump the size of a small egg in her left breast, she was 33 years old. A lumpectomy, reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments soon followed. “I was very upset to find out that several of my cousins on my mom’s side of the family had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had mastectomies,” says Wilson. “No one ever informed the younger ladies in the family to be careful and to check ourselves because of our family history.”

Joseph says, “Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient, it affects the family as well.”

Myth #2: I can handle my problems alone.
When Cathy Williams, a Staten Island, N.Y., resident, received her breast cancer diagnosis in early 2001, she had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to prevent a third recurrence of cancer in the same breast. The prospect of losing her breast made her not only question her femininity, but her relationship with her husband.

“After my reconstructive surgery, my husband would change my dressings, help me shower and he even took me to every one of my chemotherapy treatments,” explains Williams. “He did all of that to show me that he was not going anywhere and to give me that sense of security.”

Joseph responds, “I find that my patients that come [to their appointments] with family members or who have a lot of support from friends and family do much better in the long run. I always worry about the patients who show up for all their appointments alone.”

Myth #3: You can’t trust doctors.
Medical abuses that occurred in the past, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted among unwitting African-American males, and inequities in health care make it challenging to increase the participation of African-American cancer patients in clinical trials research. But it is through this type of research that patients benefit from innovative treatments, including biologic therapy (drugs), chemotherapy (radiation) and hormone therapy to attack cancerous tumors. “Without research, it’s very doubtful we would have seen changes in the approaches to healing this disease,” says Joseph.

Some women supplement their medical treatments with alternative medicines that include vitamins, special teas or a diet of juices, which is what Williams does for her optimum health. She is now an American Cancer Society volunteer, helping other breast cancer survivors cope.