Written by: Mutshidzi Kwinda
I was 18 when I got diagnosed with cancer and had just started attending university. Being a young black woman who was in transition from being a teenager and going from high school to university. I was going through a lot of personal change.
I grew up in rural areas where cancer was a distant thing and marked as only contracted by white old people. So when it was said to me, I did not understand. I did not know its predicaments because I did not know much about it. And it seemed and felt like a death sentence.
In this article, I will take you through the basics of cancer that are common in black women and women of color.
What is cancer?
The term cancer refers to a group of abnormal cell growth in one's body. These abnormal growths can develop anywhere in the body's tissues, organs, or an entire system. If the abnormal cell growth is not detected early, they can invade other parts of the body and this process is called metastasis.
The world health organization has stated that “cancer is the second leading cause of death globally” (2018) and most of these deaths occur in the low-and-middle-income countries. To me, this makes a lot of sense. Given that in these countries, resources are scarce for diagnosis, and the treatments are also costly.
Besides that, many low-income countries are not knowledgeable or aware of this kind of disease. It was even difficult for me, after learning about my diagnosis, to explain it to my family back in the village because they did not understand.
One of the questions people ask themselves after diagnosis is ”but how”.
The causes of cancer can range from hereditary to lifestyle behaviors and biological carcinogens such as infections (especially sexually transmitted HPV and hepatitis infection).
With hereditary, it is important to ask and know if someone in your family has had cancer so that you can go for screening as soon as possible. Heredity is the process that happens over generations to generations when the parents pass on their genetic information and traits to their offspring. The genes carrying the abnormalities may be passed to the offspring and that's how, as the offspring develops or grow, may start showing signs or symptoms.
Lifestyle risk factors for cancer may include:
Low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of exercise, high body mass index, tobacco, and alcohol use. Sometimes it could be an injury or other environmental factors such as ultraviolet and ionizing radiation.
Signs and symptoms
It is not easy to see the signs or to experience the symptoms of cancer when it is at an early stage. And that's why it is crucial to be aware of your body and the developments it undergoes over time.
Since there are many different types of cancers, the signs and symptoms will also vary.
Types (predominantly in black women)
Breast cancer, Cervix cancer, Colorectal Cancer, and Lung cancer are some of the types of cancers that are common in black women. Other cancers that are also common but difficult to detect include Sarcomas, Leukemia, Melanoma, and Ovarian Cancer.
Breast cancer is one of the cancers with a high mortality rate in both black (with 71% survival rate) and white (with 87% survival rate) women of varying ages. With breast cancer, self-examination is important. Because symptoms include a lump, changes in shape and/or texture of the breast (usually one side). Pain and discomfort with no apparent reason, and sometimes bloody discharge from the nipples. Breast cancer can be detected easily through routine self-examination.
It is advisable to consult a doctor or go for a mammogram/screening if you experience the above signs and symptoms.
For Cervical cancer, it may take longer to recognize that there is a problem due to the absence of symptoms. However, if you experience irregular bleeding and pain around your pelvis. Or during sexual intercourse, you might need to follow up with your doctor. Sometimes these may be accompanied by nausea, fatigue, and unintentional weight loss.
Screening tests that are effective for the detection of cervical cancer include a PAP smear test and pelvis examination. This can be done routinely at least every three years from the age of 21 or as recommended by doctors. After the age of 30, it is also recommended that you do a Pap smear test conjunctively with the HPV test.
Colorectal cancer. A colon is also known as the large intestines and it is the final part of the digestive tract. The rectum begins at the end of the colon and ends at the anus.
Common signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include blood in the stool or rectal bleeding. Persistent diarrhea or constipation, persistent pain, cramps, gas, or discomfort in the abdomen. You can also experience unexplainable and unintended weight loss, weakness, and fatigue.
It is common to experience no symptoms during the early stages of colorectal cancer. Which is why it is important to consult your doctor immediately if you see changes in bowel movements or any other of the above mentioned symptoms.
Screening methods for colorectal cancer include
A barium enema (every 5-10 years), a colonoscopy (every 10 years), a yearly fecal occult blood test, and sigmoidoscopy (annually) as detailed by Beatrice Motamedi on the article titled Cancers and black women.
One of the most common and preventable cancers among black women is lung cancer. Lung cancer often occurs in people who smoke. This may include second-hand smoke and exposure to certain chemicals.
You may experience a persistent cough (often with blood), weight loss, wheezing, chest pains, hoarseness, etc. The signs and symptoms of lung cancer may resemble those of TB. So it is important to consult a doctor to find out if you are experiencing the symptoms, especially if you are a smoker.
Treatments for cancers are available and are also effective. However, if it is preventable. It is better to minimize the risks and take initiative in creating robust wellbeing for you and others. Cancer, like most illnesses, is not discriminative and is deadly if not treated or managed.