October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Normani is an American Cancer Society Ambassador, advocating for early detection due to her mom’s two struggles with the disease. Norman’s mother, Andrea, is now cancer-free, but had breast cancer twice. Andrea found the lumps herself both times, nearly 20 years apart. In a feature with Elle, Normani sheds light on early detection, self-exams, and the medical racism that affects Black women’s cancer diagnoses or lack thereof.
Normani’s mother, Andrea Hamilton, has been diagnosed with breast cancer twice—and both times she found the lumps herself. The first time, Normani was just five years old, but she remembers seeing her mother check herself. In 2020, after 19 years cancer-free, Normani watched her mother perform the same self-exam, only to find another lump. “My mom’s diagnosis taught me that early detection and not taking anything for granted are so important,” the singer, now 26, says.
That Normani’s mom detected her cancer before doctors did is perhaps not all that surprising: When it comes to breast cancer, Black women often have to look out for themselves. While the CDC says that breast cancer will affect one in eight American women of all ages and races in their lifetime, and research from the American Cancer Society shows that Black and white women are diagnosed at similar rates, Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease. They are also more likely to be diagnosed both at younger ages and at later stages. As repeated studies have shown, this is due, in large part, to racial bias in medicine, research, media, and society at large, which often views breast cancer as a “white woman’s disease”—a misconception that has resulted in white women receiving earlier diagnoses, more frequent examinations, and better treatment plans in comparison to women of color.
Here, in her own words, Normani tells her story.
When a close relative has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you have to honor both experiences: the one who is enduring and the one who is doing their best to support. My mom is incredibly independent and self-sufficient, so seeing her break down and not be able to function was really painful. Implementing normalcy and taking her out of reality was important. She didn’t want to be coddled or feel like a burden. We did our best to make sure she felt like not much had changed. You acknowledge the circumstances, but you don’t constantly remind someone or dwell on the current reality. You also have to take care of yourself in order to be that support system for someone in such a fragile state—not only physically but spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.
I watched my mother find her own lumps both times she had breast cancer. She taught me the importance of looking out for changes in your breasts and educated me on what mammograms were at an early age. I also encourage anyone who has a family member with cancer to see that your family talks to a doctor about genetic testing. We have taken these measures as a family. Knowledge is power, so whatever you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask.
When I first saw the headline, I thought this was going to be about skin cancer and its later diagnosis for Black people, but I wasn’t surprised to learn it was about breast cancer because medical racism is truly pervasive and insidious. There’s just a general lack of care and attention shown to Black women by the medical establishment and there are the statistics to prove it (e.g. maternal mortality rate). Andrea’s story is all the more shocking because she found her own lumps not once, but twice. You’d think that especially after having and beating cancer once before, she’d be getting more frequent screenings for a potential recurrence, but apparently not. That’s exactly what the article was talking about and thank goodness she was attentive and took care of herself, though it shouldn’t have been completely on her. This is obviously an issue that’s close to Normani and good for her for using her celebrity status to advocate for equal medical care for Black women.
There is racial inequality for sure when it comes to providing health care for minorities in the United States. I am no expert in the matter but I have noticed that if you do not have a good medical insurance coverage plan you are more likely to miss biyearly medical check ups which includes breast cancer screenings for women. And it is harder for ethnic groups to find a good job that’ll provide good medical insurance coverage. Lots of minorities also opt out of a medical insurance plan because it is so expensive and they do not earn much to begin with. I don’t want to make this a political post but the Republican party are proposing budget cuts to medicare and medicaid which will further make medical care even less accessible to ethnic groups.
I’m a healthcare editor and I was literally just working on a piece on racial inequities in diagnosing breast cancer. Another huge issue is insurance reimbursement. The study found that even in screening done in the same exact institution, women with private insurance will get the more advanced imaging techniques (tomosynthesis), resulting in diagnosing cancer sooner and having better mortality rates. Women with medicare/medicaid have lower reimbursement so they won’t get screened with advanced technology resulting in the diagnosis coming later once the cancer is more advanced. As a result, Black women are 40% more likely to die than white women.
Except more white women have medicaid and Medicare than Black women. The issue is that doctors don’t believe Black women and refuse to run tests on us. I am at high risk for breast cancer and was refused the bilateral ultrasound with my mammogram bc the doctor didn’t think it was necessary. White doctors don’t believe Black women feel pain or that we are lying about our pain.
“They are also more likely to be diagnosed both at younger ages and at later stages.”
Do I understand this correctly that Black women who get cancer often get it at a younger age? Usually cancer is more aggressive the younger you are so screenings should be done earlier. I think here in Germany insurance covers mammograms from age 50 up which to me always seems late.
As for Normani’s mother, if she was 19 years cancer free, screenings may not be done as frequently? I know that for some cancers, screening intervals become longer the longer you are cancer free (again, in Germany).
This isn’t limited to the US but I often think that for all the medical advances of the last century, our overall systems of treating disease and illness is stuck in the 19th century, including the baked-in racism. The approach to preventative care is sometimes shocking. When you factor in race, it gets to a point where you wonder whether we’ve made any strides forward at all. And capitalism does not belong in health care.
In the US it’s no earlier than 40 but no later than 50. It seems late to me too but I guess there can be some issues with imaging in younger women. Something about breast density? I had to get one for a lump, and they ended up having to rely solely on the ultrasound bc the mammogram wasn’t picking up what we could all clearly see with our eyeballs. Lump was just a cyst thankfully.
Breast cancer survivor here. According to Breastcancer.org, Black women face a threefold risk of developing triple-negative breast cancer– this is one of the most deadly forms of breast cancer, notorious for spreading aggressively. If you are triple negative, it’s a serious and immediate emergency. You are pretty much at stage 4.
Black women who are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer are 28% more likely to die than white women with the same diagnosis, and are also less likely to be treated with surgery and chemotherapy, according to a study.
What the hell? Wouldn’t this indicate that black women should, if anything, get *more* screening and much earlier? And what’s this about being less likely to get surgery or chemo? What’s causing that? Wtf?? Triple negative is when you are supposed to pull out all the stops!
Because doctors do NOT believe Black women! Look at what happened to Serena Williams after she had her baby. Doctors refuse to provide care or think we are exaggerating.
Serena Williams almost died after giving birth. She voiced something wasn’t right, and she was ignored. Her white husband who is one of the richest men in the world was by her side. Yet she still almost died.
2 time Breast Cancer survivor here, first @ age 37, then again 20 years later. Daughter got BC @ age 35.
We found our own lumps & were told “small, nothing serious, come back next year to check for changes.”
We didn’t wait, insisted on & pursued treatment -surgery, radiation, chemo. We’re white. Race was not a factor in diagnosis or treatment. The factor is willingness to challenge the docs, one of whom was Black.
Vertes sounds like you weren’t believed as a woman. Now imagine not being believed as a woman and being dismissed as a person of color.
Wow. I love when white women dismiss stats and lived experiences of BIPOC women.
This is such an important topic! Where are all the comments?!
We can’t accept this, we can’t progress as a nation with this inequity. Doctors who rule out lifesaving measures need to be evaluated for disciplinary measures including the loss of their license. Scholarships for WOC doctors need to be increased.
There is also so much unconscious and conscious bias with Doctors. When I learned that white Doctors generally believe that black people have a higher tolerance of pain. I was gobsmacked. And when my friend had Covid early in 2020 she and her husband were basically ignored at the hospital they went to. She called it ‘sick while black’ while others were cared for above them (they were white).
Doctors need to step it up and insurance companies with coverage and guidance.
What a white woman experiences is the default when it comes to breast cancer screenings — so how early, often, etc., insurance will cover screenings is based on white women statistics. If a different racial group disproportionately experiences cancer at an earlier age, too bad. Just as many things are based on the average man (size of a cell phone to fit a man’s hand, seat belts in cars to fit a man’s height, etc.). Imagine the double-whammy of being a woman of color. And even beyond overt racism, there is the sad reality that rich people will always have better options for diagnosis and treatment. And minorities are disproportionately poor. And poorer people are more affected by things like the forced closings of planned parenthood. The health care system in the US is a mess and utterly unfair.
Semi-related soap box moment: I know some people do not wear sunscreen often because they do not get sunburned…Please please please wear sunscreen no matter if you burn or not to protect yourself from skin cancer!
I just read a story about a Hispanic woman in New York who died of a C-section in a hospital and she had felt the doctors and staff were not listening to her. Then I read that Hispanic women have 8 times more deaths in childbirth than white women. Yes, there are racial divides in health care. Also, wealthy people get better health care than poor people. It’s just a fact, though a shameful one that needs to change.