Researchers believe that about 5–10% of breast cancer cases are the result of gene mutations passed from parents to children.
Women of color are about 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. They are also more likely to develop breast cancer at an earlier age.
Use of the term women of color in this article refers broadly to non-white women. When a study paper or another source uses different or more specific terms, such as Black women or African American women, we will also use that term.
Although genetic testing does not prevent breast cancer, it can help a person become aware of their potential risk and seek earlier screening, diagnosis, and treatment, which may help improve outcomes.
Genetic testing for breast cancer involves checking a person’s body for the presence of genes that make their risk of developing breast cancer higher.
The two most common gene mutations that doctors test for are BRCA1 and BRCA2. However, they may also look for mutations in the following:
Testing for genetic mutations typically involves taking a sample of the person’s blood or saliva. The doctor will then send the sample to a laboratory, which will eventually send the results back to the ordering doctor’s office.
According to the American Cancer Society, doctors tend to believe that white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African American women.
However, the gap in that statistic is closing because researchers are learning more about breast cancer in women of color.
In fact, they now know that women of color are more likely to:
- develop breast cancer before the age of 45 years
- die from breast cancer
- develop triple-negative breast cancer
The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) add that African American women are more likely to receive a diagnosis of advanced stage breast cancer than white women. Their tumors are also more likely to grow and spread to other areas of the body.
The BWHI also state that both genetics and socioeconomic reasons may play a role in worsened clinical outcomes for women of color compared with those of other races.
The researchers indicate that removing barriers to testing is necessary to help women of color undergo more frequent testing.
BRCA1 and BRCA2
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are the most common genes associated with inherited breast cancer cases. The prevalence of irregularities in these genes is around 5% in those with breast cancer. However, this statistic is primarily based on testing in white women.
According to one 2015 study, Black women may have a higher rate of either BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations than doctors previously thought. Approximately 12% of Black women with breast cancer tested positive for one or the other gene mutation.
HR+/HER2- is a subtype of breast cancer also known as luminal A and luminal B. White women have the most new cases of HR+/HER2- breast cancer. This subtype affects around 87 per 100,000 women each year.
Black women have the second highest rate of new cases, affecting around 70 per 100,000 women each year.
HR-/HER2- or triple-negative
HR-/HER2- is a subtype that is also known as triple-negative breast cancer. It is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. It is more likely to cause larger tumors and spread to other areas of the body.
According to the BWHI, rates of triple-negative breast cancer account for about 30% of cases in African American women, and it is about two times more common in African American women than in white women.
The National Cancer Institute present similar data, indicating that Black women experience higher rates of triple-negative breast cancer than any other ethnic group.
Genetic testing plays an important role in determining the risk of breast cancer.
It is important for doctors to educate and empower women of color about breast cancer risk and the importance of screening.
Those with risk factors such as known gene mutations or relatives who have had breast cancer should start getting mammograms earlier than other women.
Women of color should also be aware of unusual changes in their breasts, such as new lumps, discharge, and changes in skin color or inflammation.
Early detection is important in treating breast cancer. The detection of cancer in women of color is slower than in other groups, and doctors often diagnose more advanced stages of breast cancer in these women.
There are five main treatment options available to treat breast cancer:
- radiation therapy
- hormone therapy
- targeted therapy
A doctor may also make lifestyle recommendations — such as following a healthy diet, staying active, and focusing on mental health — as a part of treatment. The doctor may also determine if a person is a good candidate for a clinical trial.
Many factors can affect treatment decisions and outcomes. These include the stage of the cancer, the type of cancer, the size of the cancer, whether or not there is lymph node involvement, the person’s age, and their overall health.
Genetics play a role in some cases of breast cancer. Doctors should educate and empower women of color to learn about their risk factors, including the prevalence of triple-negative breast cancer and the importance of receiving a diagnosis during the earlier stages.
Understanding these risk factors and seeking genetic testing can help women of color undergo proper screening to diagnose and treat breast cancer sooner, which may lead to better outcomes.