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Fighting for minorities to be more than alarming statistics for cancer diagnosis and treatment

Posted at 10:38 PM, May 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-10 23:24:16-04

INDIANAPOLIS — A proposed change to federal guidance could encourage more women to get mammograms earlier.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force says women with an average risk for breast cancer should start getting screened at 40-years-old instead of 50-years-old.

An Indianapolis woman is proof that early detection is key and breast cancer can impact women of any age.

"I was healthy. I was an athlete growing up. I'm young. That was the last thing I expected to hit me at that age," Janai Mitchell, a breast cancer survivor, said.

Mitchell’s diagnosis is part of a bigger conversation about the disproportionate impact of breast cancer in minorities.

"I’m just glad I listened to my body when I did," Mitchell said.

Mitchell was diagnosed when she was just 26-years-old. She had just moved to Indianapolis and was enjoying life in the big city.

“I’m kind of a homebody, but when I do get out, I like to go out around town and listen to live music,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell says breast cancer runs in her family.

“I was doing a self-exam on myself, and I felt something,” Mitchell said.

After some time, she noticed what she felt didn't go away.

"I decided to go to my primary care doctor. She felt it and said I’m glad you came in," Mitchell said.

Her doctor referred her to another doctor for imaging and biopsies.

"Usually when we think of breast cancer, we think of women in their 50s and 60s, post-menopausal," Dr. Carla Fisher, Director of Breast Surgery for IU health, said.

But on March 1, 2022, just days before her 27th birthday, Mitchell got the call that she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.

"She was talking, and I was hearing her, but I wasn't really listening. I just heard the word cancer," Mitchell said.

"Being diagnosed with breast cancer in your 20s is pretty unusual," Fisher said.

Fisher, Mitchell's doctor, says Mitchell was an advocate for herself, which made a difference in her outcome. A recent study found that black women have a 40% higher breast cancer death rate than white women.

"Rates of breast cancer in African American and Latina patients tend to actually be less than in Caucasian patients or patients of European ancestry. However, the outcomes from their cancer tend to be worse," Fisher said.

Dr. Julian Marin, Thoracic Oncologist at IU Health, says there are a lot of factors in terms of why minorities are more affected by cancer and why they have more trouble getting treated.

Marin says addressing the factors that they can change, like proper access, is the key to decreasing disparities when it comes to diagnosing and treating cancer.

"Unfortunately, in our past, we have treated patients differently depending on their background, but there's also, because of that history and background, some bias from other populations towards the medical field," Marin said.

Dr. Nasser Hanna, professor of medicine at IU Health, says there hasn’t been enough progress made.

“You can’t settle for saying, well, we’re making progress. That doesn’t sit well when you still have huge gaps,” Hanna said.

Hanna says representation and understanding will be the game changer to bridging the gap between minorities and health care.

"In the black community, you're told don't believe everything you hear. Don't go to the doctor. Just shake it off," Mitchell said.

Mitchell just celebrated turning 28-years-old. It was her first birthday cancer free. She says she hopes her story will help minorities become more than alarming numbers in the healthcare system.

“Being a better person and loving me more, I think changed me as a person," Mitchell said.

Dr. Fisher says it will take efforts from lawmakers and community leaders to provide great jobs and education for all people equally to change those disparities.