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SALUD: Dr. Myriam Torres Explains Why Breast Cancer Remains Leading Killer Among Latinas

First Posted: Feb 27, 2015 05:00 AM EST
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Photo : Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Breast cancer rates are lower among Latinas than women of other races and, consequently, the community has lower breast cancer mortality rates than African American women and non-Hispanic whites alike.

Yet, breast cancer remains the most common cancer for Hispanic/Latina women, and it's their leading cause of death.

According to a study led by a team at the University of California, San Francisco, a genetic variant may shield Latinas from breast cancer. Twenty percent of U.S. Latinas carry the genetic variant, which is known as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP (pronounced "snip"). And just one percent of Latinas carry two of the variant genes that affect the production of estrogen receptors, which are linked to cancer risk.

The variant also signifies that carriers have breast tissue that appears denser on mammograms. This is important because breast density plays a role in breast cancer risk. And this could potentially explain why Hispanic women have a lifetime breast cancer risk that is far lower than African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. According to the study, women with one copy of the variant were 40 percent less likely to have breast cancer, and that percentage doubles for those who have two copies of the variant, which happens to shield against one of the more aggressive form of breast cancer, "estrogen-receptor negative."

Even as Latinas fare better than some, the community still struggles. Latinas still face difficulties accessing health care facilities, acquiring/affording insurance and being proactive about their health, evident by the fact that many don't screen for mammograms.

According to ThinkNow Research, 6 out of 7 Latinas are aware that breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among women. Seventy percent of Latinas recognize that genetics play a part in developing cancer, and 40 percent understand that environmental toxins and smoking, as well as eating habits (28 percent), play a role. Nonetheless, young Latinas are unswervingly more concerned with diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure than cancer. 

"Breast cancer happens to be the leading cause of death among Latinas, and there are many reasons. One is the lack of access to mammograms," Myriam Torres, clinical assistant professor within the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at University of South Carolina, said to Latin Post. "Another, they have low rates of insurance. Also, it's known that Latinas are often diagnosed late, given the fact that they often fail to get mammograms." 

Education is key. But learning is a matter of interacting with culturally and linguistically competent health care providers, who encourage visits to mammography centers, where Latinas can learn about risks and screening methods. According to Susan G. Komen, only 64 percent of Latinas over the age of 40 and older had a mammogram in the past two years, and that percentage is only higher than the non-Hispanic Asian population. Latinas often struggle when it comes to finding the transportation, time, money and child care to ensure their health. Removing barriers is a matter of removing language barriers, promoting health campaigns and making health care affordable. It's also a matter of sharing risk factors.

Breast cancer risk factors include: older age, genetics, hormone therapy, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, radiation and obesity. Weight gain can encourage fat cells to produce estrogen-positive cells and smoking increases vulnerability. But, the likelihood of developing breast cancer can only be curbed through preventative measures such as early detection, staying healthy, staying on top of breast evaluations, and staying active. Being physically active for at least 150 minutes daily is recommended by the American Cancer Society, and it reduces risk significantly.

"Advancement and research for breast cancer benefits every woman, not just Latinas and not just Whites. There's no satisfaction in Latinas being less likely to develop breast cancer or die from breast cancer because they're still dying. And non-Latinas are still dying," said Torres. "And we can't say, 'Latinas don't get breast cancer as often, so they're not at risk. So, no big deal.' Because it is a big deal. Latinas still need mammograms. They still need research done on their behalf, and we need to continue to find ways to address breast cancer in a way that could save the lives of every woman." 

Latina de Asistencia y Prevención del Cáncer de Mama (ALAS-Wings) is a Chicago-based organization that offers breast health awareness, emotional support and education for Hispanic/Latina women and their families. The organization hosts support groups, educational workshops, and they own a signature program, ALAS on Wheels: The Mobile Salon, which promotes well-being, body image and self-esteem. While ALAS may be stationed in the Chicagoland, the resources and services posted on its site looks to connect Latinas nationwide with a plethora of services and resources, offered by organizations such as A Silver Lining Foundation, Bright Pink and Second Act.

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