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Taking breast cancer risks for black women seriously


IN DECEMBER 2015 Wendy Drayton got the news that would change her life. At the time things were very tough as she was caring for her mother who was ill with cancer.

“I was running backwards and forwards from work to the hospital. I felt very tired” she recalls. “But the tiredness, it was a little different, but I didn’t take a notice of it because of what was going on in the back- ground. I did feel a pain on the side of my right breast, but I didn’t take any notice because I was more concentrated on my mum because she was dying.”

Drayton’s daughter, noticing that she wasn’t herself, urged her to go to see her doctor and get a check up. “I said ‘oh the tiredness will go away.’ It was coming and going, I just didn’t take a lot of notice. After we buried my mum I went to the steam bar to relax because I was feeling really depressed and stressed. I was having a shower and I felt something in my breast about the size of a pea. And I said: ‘oh what’s this?”


A visit to the doctor, followed by further tests, revealed she had two lumps in her breast. The smaller one was benign and the larger one was cancerous. She had stage two breast cancer. Despite her mother having passed away after suffering from cancer and also losing her father and two brothers to the disease, she never thought it would affect her.

Drayton had six sessions of chemotherapy at St Bart’s followed by radiotherapy. “At first I didn’t want to tell anybody I had breast cancer,” she recalled. “When I was first diagnosed, all my family came with me for the results.

"My aunty said I should not tell anyone I had cancer and that I should keep it to myself. She is in her seventies and in her era you don’t talk about cancer, because I know back in the day when I was growing up, people had cancer, but it was taboo.

“At first I did keep it to myself because I had to chew it over before I could tell anyone. But then I said to myself ‘No! I’m going to tell people I have breast cancer.’


“Eventually I did tell people and they said ‘you’ve got what? How did you get breast cancer? That’s a good question. It could be anything. My diet was good, I exercise, I don’t smoke I don’t drink, I’m very religious. But you don’t know, it could be hereditary, you just don’t know how you get cancer.”

According to medical experts, Drayton was lucky. A new study from Queen Mary University of London and Barts Charity has revealed worrying ndings that black women see breast cancer as a white woman’s disease.

As a result, going for check ups is seen as a low priority and African Caribbean women affected by the disease often do not share their experiences with others because of the perceived stigma. The £160,000 study is based on a series of 20 focus groups with 100 black women aged between 25 and 50.

The women reported a relatively low level of awareness about the prevalence of breast cancer among black and minority ethnic (BAME) females and referred to “the whiteness of the media coverage of breast cancer”.

Since the introduction of new therapies and the National Health Breast Screening Programme in 1988, deaths from breast cancer have declined by 40 per cent. However, despite huge progress in detecting and treating breast cancer, there are still signi cant disparities in mortality rates.

While breast cancer incidence is lower among black women in the UK, survival rates are also lower.
Uptotheageof45,ablack woman is about as likely as a white woman to develop breast cancer, after which the risk among black women does not increase in the same way as it does in white women.

But for black women who do develop the disease, they are more likely to develop it at a younger age than their white counterparts and it’s more likely to be oestrogen receptor negative and therefore more aggressive.

Stephen Duffy, Professor of Cancer Screening at Queen Mary said: “I think with black women there is a tendency to forget they are at a similar risk of breast cancer, slightly lower compared to white women, but it has been noticed they sometimes get a faster growing type of cancer. So it’s all the more important to catch it earlier and get it treated.”

Lucy Carter, a GP in Hackney, in East London, agrees and highlighted cultural barriers, including a stigma about cancer, that often prevents black women from coming forward.

She said: “I think as a GP it’s really important that black women do come to the doctors as soon as they are concerned about any symptoms. GPs are here to allay their concerns, examine them and we are al- ways open”

Dr Carter continued: “We know that black women may come in a little later over concerns about breast cancer, and they may have a more aggressive form we really do need to pick these cases up earlier. The door is open, do come and do not be afraid. We are your first port of call.”

Evadney Campbell wore beautiful head wraps to hide her hair loss during chemotherapy

One person who echoes this call is Evadney Campbell who runs the public relations company Shiloh PR. Cambpell was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2017 but is now in remission.

She recalled: “When the doctors told me it was breast cancer, my immediate reaction wasn’t about me it was about my children and family. The worst thing for me was telling my mum and my grandmother. Both of them had been seriously ill – my mum had been on life support in America and was still on the mend.

"So to then tell them that I had been diagnosed with breast ancer was challenging. And I knew that for that generation the very word cancer just instilled fear. But I’m very much a believer in us talking about these things so that we can demystify it and tackle fear. Ninety per cent of what we worry about is fearful because we don’t have enough knowledge.”


Campbell credited keeping busy to help take her mind off the cancer diagnosis. After being diagnosed she wrote a book, and through her PR company helped promote a huge music event at Wembley. She also credits a positive mental attitude has helping her through a tough period.

“Maybe I was naïve but what kept me positive was knowing that the doctors caught it early, and they were dealing with it and I could not let any fear or negativity take over. I didn’t share what I was going through on social media because I didn’t want a lot of people thinking I was trying to get sympathy.

Campbell during treatment – she is passionate about telling other BAME women to go for check ups

"What I did do though was to share me still living, me still going out and enjoying myself. When I started losing my hair — and it was the only thing I cried about — I took pleasure in wrapping my hair and found different ways to do it.

“People thought I was part of this whole new Nubian natural look but no one knew it was because was going through chemotherapy. Campbell continued: “I believe that we as people of African origin often internalise too many things when faced with problems as if we’ve brought them on ourselves. We tend not to want to tell anybody, perhaps because we’re ashamed.

“That’s why I openly talk about these issues because it is so important. Women of African origin have often grown up in a culture where we can’t share our business with other people. This is why the breast cancer survival rates of women in our community is so bad. There may be fewer of us that get it but there are more of us that die and that is purely because we take so long to go and seek treatment."

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