A new program offering free ultrasound screenings to young black women aims to raise awareness about the high incidence of aggressive breast cancers in African Americans.
The Connecticut Breast Health Initiative has awarded a $33,350 grant to begin a five-year breast ultrasound screening study involving black women ages 25 to 39.
“We need to get the word out,” said Dr. Kristen Zarfos, a breast surgeon at the Hospital of Central Connecticut who applied for the grant. “Young African American women are developing aggressive tumors and nobody understands why.”
The study will examine the effectiveness of breast ultrasound as an early detection tool for aggressive tumors in young black women. Women can get the screenings at two sites: the Medical Arts Center in Plainville adjacent to the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at the Hospital of Central Connecticut and the Imaging Center of West Hartford. The study is open to black women with and without family histories of breast cancer.
Zarfos said she has witnessed many advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer during her long career as a surgeon.
But some facts haven’t changed: African American women are at risk of developing breast cancer at a younger age and their cancers are more biologically aggressive.
Of African American women who develop breast cancer, 35 percent are under the age of 50. Among white women who develop breast cancer, 20 percent are under 50, according to Zarfos.
Black women under the age of 35 have more than twice the incidence of invasive breast cancer and are three times more likely to die of the disease than young white women, she added.
African American women also are more likely to have triple negative cancers that do not respond to targeted treatments that tell estrogen, progesterone or HER2 receptors to “turn off the cancer cells,” noted Zarfos.
Zarfos believes these statistics should prompt physicians to alter their approach when caring for African American women.
“When we see a young black woman, we need to think about the possibility of breast cancer until proven otherwise,” she said. “Physicians need to provide women with a thorough examination and take into account their personal and family history. We need to ask ourselves: Should she have a mammogram or ultrasound?”
The American Cancer Society recommends women begin receiving yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. But that may be too late for some African American women under age 40 who “arrive at the doctor’s office with a palpable mass when they are diagnosed,” said Dr. Jean Weigert, director of breast imaging for the Hospital of Central Connecticut.
Breast ultrasound may be a viable screening tool for this group of women because the procedure is inexpensive, painless and doesn’t require radiation, said Weigert. Ultrasound also has been shown to be an effective technique for screening the type of dense breast tissue that is more common in younger women.
“Anything we can do to find breast cancer in this high risk population at an earlier stage while it’s still small and before it has metastasized, would be a great benefit,” said Weigert, who is president of the Radiological Society of Connecticut.
Joyce Bray, president of the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative, said they funded the breast ultrasound study because the “innovative research” was breaking new ground. The volunteer organization funds cancer research taking place in Connecticut.
“No one is looking for breast cancer in younger women so when the cancer is finally detected, it’s far along and more dangerous,” said Bray. “That’s what’s happening within the African American community. It’s really scary.”
To learn more about the study or to find out if you qualify for a free breast ultrasound screening, call 860-524-3065.
(An earlier version incorrectly reported on the number of women under 50 who develop breast cancer.)