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Your Environment. Your Health.

Fighting Racial Disparities in Breast Cancer Mortality Rates

ARRA Success Story

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Victoria Seewaldt, M.D.

Duke University

Duke University is working to overcome the disparity between black and white women in deaths from breast cancer, with help from an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant from NIEHS.

The ARRA funds helped break down that wall from the outset, by allowing the hire of three women from the black community of Durham. 

Project Manager Gretchen Kroeger notes that while white women are more likely to get breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to die from it, and at a younger age. According to Duke statistics from 1997-2001, the breast cancer death rate in Durham County, N.C., the home of both Duke and NIEHS, was 27.5 percent for whites and 42 percent for blacks.

The Duke researchers are determined to find the reasons for the disparity. The ARRA grant is funding three community health workers to conduct surveys of African-American women in the Durham area about their health, attitudes, and lifestyles, with a goal to survey 900 women.

Victoria Seewaldt

"Duke University is working to overcome the disparity between black and white women in deaths from breast cancer, with help from an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant from NIEHS."

- Victoria Seewaldt, M.D.

The two main factors, according to Kroeger, are education and exposure. African-Americans tend to live and work in areas where certain types of industry and agriculture make them more susceptible to exposure to carcinogens than whites. And researchers have found that there is a level of mistrust toward health care professionals on the part of African-Americans that has built up over decades and even centuries.

"I think part of the problem is doctors and nurses don't realize how they're coming across to some of these community members, whether it's a cultural difference or socioeconomic difference," Kroeger says. "There are a variety of things that can create a gap between people."

Sisters network table
Community health worker and breast cancer survivor Eugenia Millender (right) spreads the word about Duke's breast cancer study. Millender was one of three community health workers hired with ARRA funds to help Duke survey 900 African-American women in Durham County, N.C., about their health, attitudes, and lifestyles.

Co-Principal Investigator Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., says, "The ARRA funds helped break down that wall from the outset, by allowing the hire of three women from the black community of Durham."

These ARRA-funded workers go out into the community to meet black women where they live and play, to churches and community centers, helping to repair that rift.

Della McKinnon, one of the newly-hired community health workers says she likes having a job where she's not tied to a desk. "It really feels good to go out and share information with the African-American community," McKinnon says, "and it really feels good to build trust."

McKinnon says that there is a feeling in the African-American community of Durham that Duke is separate from the rest of the city. "This study is helping change that perception."

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