This story originally ran on Today.com.
The day before she turned 30 and had planned to leave for a celebratory vacation, Sharonda Vincent felt a lump on her left breast while in the shower. She scheduled a last-minute appointment with a doctor at Planned Parenthood, who told her to enjoy her trip because she doubted it was cancerous.
After Vincent returned home to Philadelphia, the mother of one decided to see her primary care provider, just in case. This led to a series of tests, including a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. In the summer of 2005, she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer.
“I was numb, hurt, confused, upset, questioning God,” she told TODAY. “It was a complete shock.”
Vincent, now 45, has been cancer-free for 15 years, thanks to the surgery, chemo and radiation she underwent that summer. She’s among the millions of Black women who’ve survived breast cancer, even though the odds are unjustly stacked against them.
Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage or at a younger age. Death rates for white women with breast cancer are improving more rapidly than for Black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research into the reason for these disparities is ongoing, but it’s likely “multifactorial,” Dr. Vivian Bea, chief of breast surgical oncology at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, told TODAY.
What’s more, Bea expects breast cancer outcomes for Black women to only get worse due to COVID-19. A recent survey, conducted by the cancer information platform SurvivorNet, found that 1 in 3 women has delayed getting a mammogram because of the coronavirus.
A doctor who looks like you
As a physician and Black woman, Bea believes that a main inhibitor for the Black community to seeking health care is the absence of doctors who can relate to their life experiences. Only 5 percent of U.S. doctors are Black, and even fewer are Black women, per 2018 data.
“When I take care of my Black patients … I can’t tell you how often I hear, ‘I trust you because you look like me,” she said. “I hear stories of, ‘I talked to this doctor, and I told them I had a mass, and they told me it was nothing,’ or ‘I had a pain, and they said it was in my head.’ Unfortunately (Black) women are sometimes not taken seriously.”
While Vincent doesn’t feel her care team approached her differently because of her race, she said she leaned heavily on the only Black medical professional she encountered during her treatment.
In Vincent’s initial appointments, she recalled, staff struggled to draw her blood, and she had to be pricked by multiple techs each time, especially uncomfortable given her fear of needles. So the Black medical assistant planned her future visits so the one tech who could draw Vincent’s blood on the first try