It is well known that among Ashkenazi Jewish women the incidence of a BRCA mutation is in the range of 1-2%. But did you know that in African-American women who have had early-onset breast cancer (defined as breast cancer diagnosed before the age of 45), or who come from a family in which there has been early-onset breast or ovarian cancer or triple-negative breast cancer diagnosed before the age of 65 that the incidence of a BRCA mutation is ten times as high?
At the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research being held this week in Philadelphia, I spoke to Ms. Vernal Branch, a very prominent African-American woman who has been a healthcare leader for more than 20 years, and who has played a leading role in several breast cancer philanthropies. She is a beautifully articulate grandmother who received an award for her contribution to increasing awareness about breast cancer among black women on the lawn of the Obama White House: She was not aware of the remarkably increased incidence of BRCA mutations in young black women with breast, ovarian, and triple-negative breast cancer. Washington, we have a problem.
A study presented by Dr. Jane Churpek of the University of Chicago during the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology in 2013 revealed that 22% of the young black women she had investigated who had early onset breast, ovarian, or triple-negative breast cancer had inherited at least one of the known breast cancer mutations – most of whom had either a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation.
It’s well past time for this information to make it from the periphery of medicine onto center stage where it belongs, and where it can be put to good use by physicians and surgeons who care for African-American women, especially those with a family history of breast, ovarian, or triple-negative breast cancer. It’t not sufficient that the world knows all about Angelina Jolie’s fight with a BRCA mutation. Jolie was brave and has done her part in promoting genetic testing in women with a family history of early-onset breast and ovarian cancer. Now the world needs to know about the secret fight black women face against this surreptitious danger that is milling about the African-American community: BRCA mutations are plaguing them and we must do something to lend a hand and help.