Cancers affecting black women are more deadly than once thought

Posted at 6:44 AM, Feb 17, 2017

Hearing the words "you have cancer" can be quite shocking. 

It's a disease that, depending on the type, can attack one group more than the other.

News 5 is looked into two different types of cancer, particularly problematic for African-American women, and a new study that has found, it's even worse than they thought.

When Bernadette Scruggs first found out she had cancer naturally, she was floored.

"The first thing I thought of was death, I was going to die, that was the first thing, and then I just went numb."

She's been the type of person to always regularly check up on her health.

"In February is my birthday, I got a mammogram every February, I had ten consecutive mammograms, and number 11 showed a cancer diagnosis," she said. 

She's not alone. Doctors say there's an alarming health disparity for African American women when it comes to both breast and cervical cancer.

"The disparity that we face is actually very real... especially in the big cancers that we're talking about," said Dr. Kimberly Resnick, Director of GYN Oncology at MetroHealth Systems.

In both diseases, African-American women have the highest incident and mortality rates than any other race, here in Cuyahoga County and nationwide.

"The disadvantage that our patients face permeates everything that we do for our patients," Dr. Resnick said.

She explained the problem is layered, stemming from issues of women with a low socioeconomic status, to fear of the system, but most importantly she stresses it's time for the medical community to take responsibility.

"Likely some of this really does come down to cultural competency, so the ability for the physician who isn't necessarily an older African-American woman to really identify with their patient," Resnick said.

Though some progress has been made.

"We actually are beginning to see the disparity gap closing," she said.

A new study just released this year by the Journal Cancer shows the risk of dying from cervical cancer is much higher than once thought, killing black women at a 77 percent higher rate.

"The women that were at the highest risk of death from cervical cancer were actually elderly African-American women," Dr. Resnick explained.

That's why two-time cancer survivor Bernadette Scruggs now dedicates her life to speaking to and educating black women on the importance of taking ownership of their own health.

"It's not knowing about it I'm not doing anything about it that's getting us in big trouble. I think we just have to do you like a paradigm shift on how we look at things, said Scruggs.

Doctors say most patients don't realize cervical cancer, in particular, is actually preventable, on two fronts. Women can either get the HPV vaccine, which is 99 percent effective or get a pap smear regularly, as that's where they're doing cancer screening.