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New study links African ancestry to high-risk breast cancer

“It’s been long known that breast cancer in African-American women is a far less common disease than in white women. But when it occurs, it seems to be more aggressive and harder to treat.” That quote is attributed to Dr. Lisa Carey, of the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Centerand a physician who treated Elizabeth Edwards.

A new study offers an explanation, with the discovery that African ancestry is linked to triple-negative breast cancer, a more aggressive type of cancer that has fewer treatment options.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center found that, among women with breast cancer, 82 percent of African women were triple negative, compared to 26 percent of African-Americans  and 16 percent of white Americans.

What does this mean?

Triple negative breast cancer is negative for three specific markers that are used to determine treatment: the estrogen receptor, the progesterone receptor and a third receptor known as HER-2 for "Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2."

"The most significant recent advances in breast cancer treatment have involved targeting these three receptors.

But these treatments do not help women with triple-negative breast cancer. Outcome disparities are therefore likely to increase, because fewer African-American women are candidates for these newer treatments," says study author Lisa A. Newman, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Breast Care Center at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The latest

The new study, published online in the journal Cancer, examined 581 African American women and 1,008 white women diagnosed with breast cancer at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, plus 75 African women diagnosed in Ghana.

Researchers found that Ghanaian women were diagnosed at a younger age than American women, and with larger tumors and more advanced cancer. In addition, the Ghanaian women were more likely to test negative for each of the three markers.

Other studies have also shown a hereditary breast cancer risk associated with racial-ethnic identity -- most commonly among Ashkenazi Jewish women.

According to the American Cancer Society 194,280 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 40,610 will die from the disease. Every bit of knowledge can help counter those statistics.

For more information: American Cancer Society

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