Three years ago at age 55, Ricki Fairley was having a routine physical when her doctor found “a little tiny tumor under my nipple.”
After further tests, she got the news: She had breast cancer. “I was shocked because I thought my breasts were, like, too small for breast cancer,” she muses three years after a mastectomy on Oct. 20, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
A busy marketing executive, her initial thought was, “Gosh this is going to get in my way because I have things to do.”
But as with many women, Ricki’s inspiration to fight came from love for her family. Her older daughter, Amanda, was a working professional. But her baby daughter, Hayley, was in college, “and I knew I had to pay for it.” After six rounds of chemo and eight weeks of radiation, Ricki was cancer-free and remains so. And Hayley happily graduated from Dartmouth College this year.
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More than 230,000 women across the nation will receive a diagnosis of some form of breast cancer this year, and 1 in 8 women who live to be 80 will develop cancer in her lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the differences in the survival rates between white women and African American/black women are staggering. Though white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, African American women are more likely to die.
More specifically, the breast cancer death rate for women between ages 45 and 64 was 60 percent higher for black women than for white women, according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, citing a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That study also points out that the five-year survival rate for black women is 77 percent, compared with 90 percent for white women.
It seems with all the medical and statistical information we now have about breast cancer, the outcomes would somehow be different. But Womenshealth.gov reports that the tumors of black women are often found at later, more advanced stages when there are fewer treatment options; some women still don’t follow up after getting abnormal test results; and some women just don’t trust the health care system. Also, not having insurance discourages some from getting checked.
>> Visit AARP's Breast Cancer Learning Center
So, what should black women do? Here’s Ricki's advice, based on her own experience and information from the Black Women’s Health Imperative.
The best overall strategy is to reduce your known risk factors as much as possible by avoiding weight gain and obesity, engaging in regular physical activity and minimizing alcohol intake. Understanding the risks and early detection are critical. For most black women, early detection and diagnosis come with a few easy steps:
1. Have your doctor show you how to perform monthly breast self-exams and perform them faithfully at the same time each month.
2. See your doctor for a clinical breast exam at least once a year.
3. Have regular mammograms. Because breast density is one of the strongest risk factors for black women developing breast cancer, insist on digital mammography or some of the newer, more advanced technologies that help detect tumors.
4. Get proper follow-up care after an abnormal mammogram.
5. Educate the women in your family about breast cancer and make getting your mammogram a family event with your mother, sister and friend.
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Now president and thought leader for Dove Marketing, Ricki has also taken on the mission of educating women about breast cancer and encouraging women who have it. As for her life as a breast cancer survivor, she says, “I am happy, healthy and terrific.”
Photo: Courtesy of Ricki Fairley family
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