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Komen Connections: Expert Says African-American Women Must Remain Vigilant With Breast Cancer Screening

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Breast cancer is the most common cancer among African-American women, and when it comes to survival the numbers are bleak.

Black women are nearly 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.

CBS2's Elise Finch found out why that is and what's being done to change that statistic.

Five years ago, Lydia Davis got the shock of her life when her doctor discovered a lump in her breast during a routine physical.

"I was like, it's not possible. I check myself, I don't feel anything, and she said, 'Here, give me your finger, and she let me feel it and I was like, 'Yeah, I do feel a lump there,'" the 49-year-old East New York resident said. "I didn't have a history in my family. Nobody on my mother's side or my father's side had breast cancer. I was the first one."

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Erica Jackson of Elizabeth, New Jersey, did have a family member with the disease. In fact, she lost her grandmother to breast cancer. But she was pretty young when she was diagnosed herself, well below the age most people start having regular mammograms.

"I was 30 years old when I was diagnosed and 31 when my breasts were removed," Jackson said.

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Jackson had both breasts removed as a preventative measure and she's been cancer-free for 16 years. She said early detection and her forceful approach to treatment makes her a success story, because many black women don't survive breast cancer.

The big question is why?

"It used to be that we felt it was associated with economic status, that black women tend to be poorer than white women, so maybe it was an access-to-care thing and not getting early diagnosis and not getting mammograms," said Donna-Marie Manasseh, Chief of Breast Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center.

Manasseh said that while socioeconomic factors do indeed contribute to the higher death rate so do the more aggressive cancers black women tend to develop. And new literature suggests those may be a matter of heritage.

"If you take African-American women out of the mix and just look at African women, they also have a higher incidence of not surviving breast cancer compared to their Caucasian counterparts," Manasseh said. "So, there's some genetic component associated with it that we haven't completely discerned.

"I think it's critical, especially in the African-American population to be found early, to be diagnosed early, because even though those cancers tend to have more aggressive features, if found early are just as treatable as other cancers in other populations," Manasseh added.

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Getting regular mammograms is critical to early detection and, ultimately, surviving breast cancer, so much so that a number of organizations are willing to bring the mammogram to you.

"We provide a screening, mammography and clinical breast exams on board a mobile van," said Mary Solomon, "Project Renewal" scan van director. "Our goal is to attract women who are uninsured or poorly insured who may not be getting screened."

In order to get the word out about early detection and resources like the scan van, Susan G. Komen started the "Know Your Girls" campaign, targeted at African-American women.

"We all have our girlfriends and we know our girlfriends well, but we wanted to get that message out how well do you know your other girls the girls that could develop breast cancer," said Linda Tantwai, the CEO of Susan G. Komen of Greater NYC.

The campaign definitely has black women talking about breast health. Breast cancer survivors say all they have to do now is take action.

"The earlier they can detect it, the better outcome you have," Davis said.

"Just like you have a spa day, my day, meaning one day to do everything that you need to do as a woman for me from head to toe and that means get that mammogram," Jackson said.

Experts say African-American women should find out their risk of developing breast cancer and then make lifestyle choices that help reduce that risk.

And always get screened regularly.

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