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Cancer Watch: Why Age 40 May Be Too Late for a Mammogram. Upscale, September/October 2002

Zora Brown and Adriene McPhatter, two health-conscious women, regularly visited their doctors. Still, they fell victims to breast cancer at young ages.

Because her mother, grandmother and two sisters had already been diagnosed with breast cancer, Brown, who had her first mammogram in her early twenties was vigilant about breast cancer prevention. But breast self-examinations and mammograms did not keep the dreaded disease from invading her breast at age 31. When she discovered a lump in her breast, she was devastated.

“I wanted to do everything I could to find a cure and be treated successfully,” she says. Later, Brown developed cancer in the remaining breast. Subsequently, her 29-year-old niece, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer when she was pregnant, died shortly after delivery.

“I have a very special concern that we’re not focusing on African-American women,” warns Brown, who went on to found the Breast Cancer Resource Committee in Washington, D.C. She also produced a PBS television special about the disease. “Data,” says Brown, “has shown that [we develop] breast cancer at younger ages.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, a woman in her thirties has a one in 257 chance of developing the disease within the next 10 years of her life. They also report that of the 94 of every 100,000 African-American women ages 30 to 34 who developed cancers between 1995-99, 33 were breast cancer victims. While breast cancer death rates have decreased for white women, the rates are greater for African-American women, who are usually diagnosed at later stages. The American Cancer Society found that twice as many African-American women ages 30 to 34 died of breast cancer during 1994 and 1998.

An unusual nipple discharge prompted Adriene McPhatter, a 34-year-old workers’ compensation adjuster, to demand a mammogram. “I think women of color [are] afraid to go into the doctor’s office and get checked,” offers McPhatter. “[They’re often] pushed aside.”

Not alarmed that her paternal aunt had breast cancer, McPhatter’s doctors tried to dissuade her from mammography. “The doctors weren’t cooperative: ‘You’re too young; you don’t have a history on your mother’s side.’” But McPhatter listened to her body and insisted on a mammogram, which revealed calcifications. “They made me wait [six months for a biopsy]. When I heard the diagnosis,” she remembers, “I was absolutely crushed.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute recommend that all women 40 and older get a mammogram every one to two years. Women over 20 are advised to have a clinical breast exam every three years and perform self-examinations monthly.

McPhatter feels women should view these guidelines with caution. “Waiting till you’re 35 or 40 could put you in a position where you don’t really have any options,” she explains. “If you think something is wrong with your body, don’t stop at the first answer they give you.”

“There’s lots of hope,” reassures Brown. “We know that treatment [for breast cancer] and survival rates are much better. Education and early exams are key.”

Brown’s advice is to “have that regular mammogram because it does work, practice breast self-examinations and take good care of your [overall] health.”