In April of 2014 doctors diagnosed my sister with stage three breast cancer. She was only 31 years old at the time and had just left her job in banking to start her own business. Luckily for our family, California had recently expanded Medicaid coverage to include the self-employed. Still, her cancer progressed to stage four before caseworkers at City of Hope hospital were able to get her approved for coverage.
I took a sabbatical from my job to help her through chemotherapy treatments as she was unable to work. She was at first denied short-term disability by the Social Security Administration, then nearly evicted by her landlord. Medicaid only partially covered the costly prescriptions and never covered the expensive genetic test to determine whether the cancer was likely to return. Despite health insurance, she still had to start an online fundraiser to keep a roof over her head.
Unfortunately, stories like these are far too common. Women of color and young women may face elevated risks of developing triple-negative breast cancers, a type of cancer that can strike earlier and be more aggressive. Black American women are less likely to develop cancer—but are 40% more likely to die from it than white women.
Julie Palmer is the director of Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center and one of the founders of the Black Women’s Health Study, a biennial survey of 59,000 Black women that began in 1995. She says, “Black women are still not getting state-of-the-art care for their breast cancer.” Palmer adds that Black women also may delay seeking cancer treatment, “possibly due to past experiences of racism in the health care system,” and that “clinical trials for treatments have underrepresented Black women.”
While 16% of Black residents in LA County remain uninsured, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), has enabled a record numbers of Black Californians to become insured. Through its Project Wellness program, the National Urban League is partnering with the Biden administration to increase Black enrollment. And the Biden administration has restored funding for navigators to help eligible people enroll in health coverage, which research shows can play a crucial role in helping eligible individuals to enroll.
My sister is now seven years cancer-free and speaks around the state about her experiences. She encourages young Black women to get insured, self-screen monthly, and add more raw greens to their diets. She tells me the response that she gets from young women motivates her to keep speaking out. “They all sound like I did back then. They think, ‘It can never happen to me.'”
Finding cancer early and starting treatment as soon as possible can help increase the chances of survival. Men over 60 with a family history of breast cancer, and all women regardless of family history should check for lumps monthly, get a yearly exam, and get insured.
1. Check For Lumps Monthly
Like many cancers, breast cancer can develop quickly. Everyone should become familiar with the feel of their breasts and chest wall tissue so they can talk with a doctor immediately if they notice any new lumps or changes in sizes, tenderness, or shape.
2. Get A Yearly Exam
Talk to your doctor about your family history and potential risks for breast cancer. Together, you both can decide when and how often you should get mammograms and other breast cancer screenings. (MLK Outpatient’s Every Woman Counts (EWC) program provides free breast exams, mammograms, pelvic exams, and Pap tests.)
3. Get Insured
Those interested in learning more about health coverage options should visit www.CoveredCA.com or call Covered California at (800) 300-1506 to speak to a certified enroller for free.