Carolyn Byrd occasionally gets a glimpse of what her life could have been.
“I actually have taken care of patients here who are dying of breast cancer,” said Byrd, a hospice nurse and administrator at University Hospice who was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009.
Though she is doing well, many black cancer patients fare worse than their white counterparts and suffer higher rates of death, the American Cancer Society reported Tuesday.
The group said cancer death rates are declining for blacks as cancer death rates overall are going down. The death rate is declining fastest among black men at 2.4 percent per year vs. 1.7 percent a year for white men, the report found,
Death rate declines are about the same for white and black women, and the relative decline since 1991 for both sexes means about 200,000 lives were saved through improved screening and treatment, the group found.
Overall, blacks fare worse than whites for most cancers at every stage of diagnosis, the report found. It is particularly striking in breast cancer: White women have a slightly higher rate of getting breast cancer, but black women’s death rate is 41 percentage points higher than whites.
Black women are much more likely to be diagnosed with advanced disease, a higher grade of tumor and cancer that has spread to a distant site.
While mammography rates are similar, 51 percent of breast cancers in blacks have not spread when they are discovered vs. 61 percent for whites, the report found. Black women were more likely to go longer between screenings and get less timely follow-up on suspicious results. They are also more likely to have aggressive tumors, particularly in younger women.
That was the case for Byrd, who found her lump in the shower five months after getting a clean mammogram.
“Now, I could have said, ‘I’m clean and I can wait until my next mammogram,’ and not check,” she said. “I might not have been here now if I had waited until the next mammogram.”
Even with her quick action, the cancer had already spread to the nearby lymph nodes. She got radiation and chemotherapy and was able to receive Herceptin, a more targeted treatment. Black women, particularly younger women, are more likely to have cancers that are not hormone-sensitive and that do not yet have well-targeted treatments, and thus worse outcomes.
Byrd, about to turn 52 this month, said her job has helped her come to grips with what could have been.
“I know the end result if the cancer comes back and if it has spread everywhere because those are the patients we take care of here,” she said. ”Once all treatment options are exhausted, hospice is the next step, which is a wonderful program.”
Byrd also volunteers for the American Cancer Society to work with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. In both ways, Byrd said, she is answering a calling.
“I know that God has given me the strength to do that because it is not strength of my own, to be able to have a diagnosis of cancer and then talk to people who are dying from the cancer and then people who are newly diagnosed,” she said. “I know that he is using me in a mighty way to get the education out and to help people. To see me as a witness, a living testimony that you can make it through.”