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on the radar: Breast Cancer

Two New Worrisome Breast Cancer Reports

Two reports appearing this week and next delivered troubling information to those concerned about women’s health. The first, appearing in the in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), suggests that current BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic tests for high breast cancer risk can miss mutations that help the disease to emerge - mostly in families with multiple incidences of ovarian or breast cancer. In the second, the Center for Disease Control reports that African-American women with breast cancer are 19 percent more likely to die than white women - a fact connected with recent figures showing that minority women are half as likely as white women to receive recommended drug treatment after breast cancer surgery.

The genetic study is troublesome not only for its health implications but also, according to the New York Times, because the test’s distributor, Myriad Genetics, controls patents that not only make it the exclusive provider of the expensive BRCA tests but also, say some experts, make it more difficult to develop better tests. University of Washington professor Mary-Claire King, senior author of the BRCA paper, has told reporters that “a fuller testing process would include more than one technology, and competition would enable that to develop." She added that a test that might find some of the mutations missed by the Myriad test is already available in Europe, but not in the United States.

In the study of African-American women with breast cancer, the researchers examined 20 previous breast cancer studies that included data on patient survival, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In a prepared statement, Dr. Lisa A. Newman, director of the Breast Care Center at the University of Michigan , said "Our research underscores the need to investigate the role of biologic, genetic and sociocultural factors in breast cancer mortality among black women." Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine studied the 1999-2000 medical records, from six New York City hospitals, of 677 women who had had surgery for early-stage breast cancer. The review revealed that minority women were only 50 percent as likely as white women to receive drug treatment. This was true even though they were referred to oncologists at a similar rate. One in three black women and almost one in four Hispanic women did not receive the additional care required.

Sources: The New York Times, 3/22/06; Centers for Disease Control: The Burden of Heart Disease, Stroke, Cancer, and Diabetes, United States , National and State Perspectives 2004 section 2; TruthDig, 3/21/06

For more on Ms. coverage of breast cancer - how it's caused and its environmental impact - try this resource page.