5 Great Tips From Black Doctors On Cancer

This blog was originally published in Essence.

TIP #1: Figure out your risk
What factors into your chances of getting any type of cancer? Smoking (which makes you vulnerable to more than just lung cancer), not protecting yourself from sun exposure, having untreated HPV (critical when it comes to cervical cancer), your age, your diet and your family history (a biggie when it comes to breast cancer in particular). “If you have a family history of breast cancer or personal history of breast biopsies, these are red flags that your risks are increased,” says Lisa A. Newman, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor and director at the University of Michigan Breast Care Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Online tools can help you learn more about your risk, including the Women’s Cancer Network risk assessment survey for six types of female cancers (wcn.org) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) CARE Model risk assessment tool for breast cancer in African-American women (dceg.cancer.gov/tools/riskassessment/CARE). Whatever the results, discuss them with your M.D. Depending on your risk, he may have you supplement mammograms with MRIs or sonograms (which can better examine dense breast tissue) or devise a preventive game plan for you to follow.

TIP #2: Never be a passive patient
African-Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial group in the United States for most cancers. “I tell women that if cancer is more aggressive in Black women, then you have to be more aggressive in taking care of yourself,” says B. Lee Green, Jr., Ph.D., vice-president of the Office of Institutional Diversity at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa. Ask your doctor questions to try to prevent the illness, such as: “How can I avoid getting breast cancer like my mom did?” or “How accurate is the test you’d like me to take?” Take steps to prevail over cancer by asking: “Why is this treatment best for me?” and “What’s a good time to call if I have questions?”

TIP #3: Know your first defense
Studies suggest one third of all cancer deaths are related to diet and obesity, which makes prevention the ultimate weapon in the war against the disease. Unfortunately, many inner-city Black women have a hard time maintaining a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and low in fat, according to a report by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Maryland. Whether it’s an issue of access or education, we’ve got to try harder to turn things around.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to give up all your favorite foods to eat smart. “To me, the whole idea of eating healthier means increasing fruits and vegetables,” says Lucile L. Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., director of the Howard University Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. Exercise is another must-do when it comes to avoiding cancer. And smoking is a definite don’t. It leads to one third of all cancer deaths. Even secondhand smoke at the club or a friend’s house can harm you. Go to Smokefree.gov for help butting out.

TIP #4: Help find a cure
Even if you’re not a cancer patient, now is the time to get involved with research. Participating in a clinical trial—which can be as simple as filling out a survey—helps doctors obtain accurate data on how diseases and drugs impact different groups of people. “We know that African-American women metabolize drugs in a different way than other racial or ethnic groups,” says Doris Browne, M.D., M.P.H., program director in the Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Research Group in the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. “Participation in clinical trials is important because it ultimately helps Black women get the care we need.”

To find out if you qualify for a clinical trial, cancer-free or not, visit such Web sites as Cancer.gov/clinicaltrials (a resource for more than 6,000 cancer clinical trials) and wcn.org (Women’s Cancer Network Web site). If you have cancer, you can also talk to your primary care provider about joining a trial.

Studies suggest one third of all cancer deaths are related to diet and obesity, which makes prevention the ultimate weapon in the war against the disease. “Sometimes you only get one shot at this, so you want to be sure you make the best possible decision you can [by getting a second opinion].”

TIP #5: Go with your instincts
“We as doctors know that people know their own bodies best,” says Carol Brown, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist and assistant attending surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Tell your doctor if something feels wrong and you want to rule out cancer.” If you’re seriously concerned, tell the doctor it’s urgent so you don’t wait three months for an appointment. Some illnesses, like breast cancer, are less likely to appear in young Black women, but symptoms can be more aggressive when they do, so timing is everything.

Make note of any unusual occurrence that could be significant: the persistent gas and abdominal pain associated with colon cancer, the abnormal menstrual bleeding tied to endometrial cancer or the urinary urgency that was recently shown to be a possible sign of ovarian cancer.