akilah with mom grandma

My name is Akilah. I am a 33 year old black woman in the Bay Area. About six years ago, I received a short email from my mom. It said 

“Hey Akilah, Consider participating in this study. I participated so you would be part of the 3rd generation cohort. Love Mommy” 

Then she forwarded me an email from the Child Health and Development Studies (CHDS) requesting volunteers to be a participant advisor for their education campaign about their latest study Breast Cancer and Environmental Exposures across Generations (BCEG).

The CHDS is a department within the Public Health Institute “committed to investigating how health and disease are passed on between generations--not just by genes, but also through social, personal, and environmental surroundings.” (CHDStudies.org) Their research participants include three generations of over 15,000 families, many of whom are Black. Compelled by their mission and my mom’s encouragement, I decided to join the study. This marked the beginning of my journey into understanding my own increased breast cancer risk and the potential causes. 

Approximately 13% of the female population will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Breastcancer.org has the following statistics about breast cancer in Black women compared to white women:

  • Black women are more likely to get breast cancer younger, under age 50. The average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 62 in white women and 60 in black women
  • Black women have more aggressive forms of breast cancer. Of black women diagnosed with breast cancer, 1 in 5 are diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. (This type of cancer is much harder to treat.)
  • Black women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer

The most immediate question that comes to mind is “What is it about black women that has breast cancer hitting us harder and at a younger age?” 

There are factors that a person has direct control over that can affect their risk of breast cancer, like physical activity and diet, but that’s not the whole story. Our social system can also increase risk through things like increased stress from racism and exposure to harmful chemicals that are more common in Black and lower-income communities. There is also evidence to show that some of that systemic risk was built into that person’s DNA long before they were born. This is something that I learned when I worked on the BCEG education campaign. 

Future generations’ risk of breast cancer and other diseases can be increased during pregnancy from both sperm and eggs, where parents and even grandparents’ exposure to toxic chemicals increase the risk of future generations.

You can read more about this and the BCEG Generations campaign here.

In thinking about the initial question regarding increased risk of breast cancer in black women, could the answer be in harmful exposures from generations past? And if so, can we measure that in a way that will help us now and in the future to prevent or treat breast cancer? Can we use what we know about the systemic racist practices of our past to right the inequities of breast cancer risk today?  

This new project I am working on with the CHDS, “Detect Signs of Early Life Exposures in Midlife to Prevent Breast Cancer Inequities,” seeks to answer these questions. CHDS will investigate if different factors, including exposure to environmental chemicals, timing of menarche, cumulative lifetime stress, and other neighborhood characteristics, make noticeable changes in our DNA that lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.

As the Community Principal Investigator, my role is to act as a voice for the community in the study. Zero Breast Cancer is an advocacy partner that will help create and disseminate educational resources based on the project. My ultimate goal with this project is to work with CHDS and Zero Breast Cancer to make a video with the results of this study that can be shared widely to help inform the public and help advocate for new measures that will work to counteract some of these early life exposures. I plan to make a few more blogs throughout the life of this project to keep you informed of the background knowledge and the results. This blog series will be the foundation of that video.

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