Bias May Hike Blacks’ Breast Cancer Risk

Reuters, July 5, 2007

Black women who feel they’ve been victims of racial discrimination are more likely than their peers to develop breast cancer, a large study suggests.

The study, which followed 59,000 African-American women for six years, found that those who reported more incidents of racial discrimination had a higher risk of breast cancer.

The relationship was stronger among women younger than 50, researchers found. This finding is particularly interesting, they note, in light of the fact that, unlike the case with older women, breast cancer is more common among young black women than young white women.

It’s possible that racial discrimination plays some role, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Teletia R. Taylor of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

They report their findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Past studies have suggested that over time, perceived racial discrimination can take a toll on a person’s health. A possible explanation is that unjust treatment serves as a source of chronic stress, which itself has been linked to poorer physical health.

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Overall, Taylor’s team found, women who said they frequently ran up against everyday types of discrimination had a higher risk of developing breast cancer. The same pattern was seen with major discrimination; women who reported on-the-job discrimination, for example, had a 32 percent higher risk of breast cancer than women who reported no such prejudice.

Women who said they’d faced discrimination on the job, in housing and from the police were 48 percent more likely to develop the disease than those who reported no incidents of major discrimination.

More studies, according to Taylor’s team, are needed to confirm these findings, and to uncover the reasons for the connection between racism and breast cancer.

[Editor’s Note: “Racial Discrimination and Breast Cancer Incidence in US Black Women: The Black Women’s Health Study,” Teletia R. Taylor, et al. (American Journal of Epidemiology July 1, 2007) can be is available as a PDF or HTML file here. An account is necessary to view the files.]


Received for publication May 24, 2006. Accepted for publication January 2, 2007.

Perceived discrimination may contribute to somatic disease. The association between perceived discrimination and breast cancer incidence was assessed in the Black Women’s Health Study. In 1997, participants completed questions on perceived discrimination in two domains: “everyday” discrimination (e.g., being treated as dishonest) and major experiences of unfair treatment due to race (job, housing, and police). Cox proportional hazards models were used to estimate incidence rate ratios, controlling for breast cancer risk factors. From 1997 to 2003, 593 incident cases of breast cancer were ascertained. In the total sample, there were weak positive associations between cancer incidence and everyday and major discrimination. These associations were stronger among the younger women. Among women aged less than 50 years, those who reported frequent everyday discrimination were at higher risk than were women who reported infrequent experiences. In addition, the incidence rate ratio was 1.32 (95% confidence interval: 1.03, 1.70) for those who reported discrimination on the job and 1.48 (95% confidence interval: 1.01, 2.16) for those who reported discrimination in all three situations—housing, job, and police—relative to those who reported none. These findings suggest that perceived experiences of racism are associated with increased incidence of breast cancer among US Black women, particularly younger women.

[1] Cancer Center, Division of Cancer Prevention, Control, and Population Sciences, College of Medicine, Howard University, Washington, DC

[2] Department of Psychology, Howard University, Washington, DC

[3] Department of Community and Family Medicine, Howard University Hospital, Washington, DC

[4] Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, Boston, MA

Correspondence to Dr. Teletia R. Taylor, Howard University Cancer Center, 2041 Georgia Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20060 (e-mail: [email protected]).

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