D. Bora Harris joined Susan G. Komen’s African-American data collection team because she felt a personal calling.
Harris, an African-American who works as a diversity consultant in the Portland area, is a member of a three-person team that includes Angela Owusu-Ansah, professor of doctoral studies at Concordia University in Portland, and Kelvin Hall, doctoral candidate and community advocate at Concordia. The team is working toward collecting data that will help a five-year initiative aimed at reducing the effects of breast cancer on black women nationwide. They are the team representing the Portland area.
Right now, African-American women die from breast cancer nearly 40 percent more often than white women. Patients are often diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer at a younger age than white women.
“Being a part of the community, having seen and heard a lot of comments and concerns that people within my faith, and workplace and the community have shared, it just really alarmed me,” Harris said of the rates. “I feel that someone needs to be, not necessarily an advocate, but needs to be on this project who is not only just focusing on the project but also has a real concern for the people that it’s affecting.”
Each year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer, including thousands of women in Washington. In honor of their fight — and as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — The Columbian published this collection of stories about the women who have received breast cancer diagnoses, the science and technological advances for treating them and the community that supports them.
The team began its work with anonymous surveys this summer collecting qualitative and quantitative data centered on demographics, breast cancer screening habits and barriers to breast cancer screenings and treatment. They held a presentation at the Vancouver Housing Authority earlier this year.
Harris said there are a multitude of reasons that African-American women are dying at higher rates from breast cancer.
“It’s because of a lack of education, a lack of funds,” Harris said, “and then African-American women have historically been told to ‘hush.’ ‘I don’t want to upset my family members. I don’t want to talk about it.’ We are encouraging them to have conversations.”
In some cities, the rate of mortality is 74 percent greater for African-American women with breast cancer, Harris said. She explained that stress levels contribute to the problem. African-American women face societal and systemic racism that is amplified for them due to their race and gender.
“A lot also goes with the stress of life,” Harris explained. “A lot of African-American women are concerned with health issues, concerned with how they’re treated. There’s so many other things that increase that stress.”
Another factor that African-American women face, which is entwined with racial discrimination, is that their pain is not always taken as seriously in health care, and that important concerns and symptoms are dismissed by providers — African-American women also face much high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates.
“They don’t always feel that the white doctors are giving them the attention they need,” Harris said.
The data collection process lasts six months, and will wrap up at the end of the year, when the team will turn the data into Komen.
The data will then be used to help structure Komen’s five-year initiative. Harris said she’s happy to participate in a project where the data is collected from people actually living the experience.
“A lot of African-Americans, especially when they have a lot of issues of life and concerns and are limited, they don’t have time to do surveys, so their opinions get left out,” Harris said. “This is why my team said, ‘We’re not going to send anything out. We’re going to go where the community is.'”