Black Women And Breast Cancer

Nicole Sudler was a 28-year-old single mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I was shocked," she said. "And I was very, very afraid."

Sudler had one of the deadliest and most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Some researchers are calling it "triple negative."

"It kind of made me feel like 'Oh, God, my life is going to be over.' You know, dating, it's not going to happen anymore. Getting married? Probably not," Sudler said.

This kind of cancer is a triple threat because it strikes early; it's resistant to standard drug treatments; and more likely to kill. Its primary targets are young African-American women. Black women under the age of 50 are 77 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women of all ages.

Patients like Sudler compel Dr. Funmi Olopade of the University of Chicago to figure out what is going on.

"I'm motivated to go back to my lab and figure out: Why did that 20-year-old woman get breast cancer?" Olopade said.

Her quest for answers took Olopade back to her native Nigeria, where she's discovered that African women share the same genetic predisposition to triple negative breast cancer.

"Our work in Africa suggests it may also be more common for more women in Africa," said Olopade.

That may seem like a simple answer to what's causing a serious problem. But when it comes to race and medicine, nothing is simple.

"Race is not a scientifically determined category in the first place," said Dr. Harold Freeman of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention.

Poverty, culture and social injustice, not genetics, are behind the disparity, according to Freeman, who is also a senior advisor to the National Cancer Institute.

The question is: Is it related to being black in and of itself, or is it related to the circumstances under which people live?

Freeman fears suggesting there's a genetic basis for the disease will revive racist ideas that blacks are biologically different and inferior. Olopade says it's time to move forward.

"I think, actually, genetics gets us to look beyond race," said Olopade.

For women like Nicole Sudler, any research that sheds new light on the deadly disease is welcome.

"Help us with the research. We want to live, too," she said.