October was Breast Cancer Awareness and Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Here’s what that means for Black women

Both breast cancer and domestic violence disproportionately impact African-American women.

BY JESSIKA WARD, Dream Defenders

October is not only the month of spooky creepy-crawly things. It’s also the month that observes breast cancer and domestic violence awareness. In November, let’s continue the conversation by highlighting how breast cancer and domestic violence impact Black women.

Both breast cancer and domestic violence disproportionately impact African-American women. Studies show that Black women have a 31 percent breast cancer mortality rate — the highest of any U.S. racial or ethnic group — and are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than white women.

These numbers should not go without attention. Among women younger than 45, breast cancer incidence is higher among African-American women than white women. Triple-negative breast cancer is diagnosed more often in Black women than in women of European descent in the United States.

“Younger women in general, and younger African-American women in particular, are more likely to present with the triple-negative subtype of the disease, a subtype that is both more aggressive and associated with a higher mortality,” said Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP), a science-based policy and advocacy organization that was founded in 1992 and works to prevent breast cancer.

“Over the past 20 years, despite the universal drop in mortality rates, we have seen a rise in the incidence of breast cancer in African-American women.”

BCPP encourages Black women to be aware of the beauty products they use. Some of the chemicals in products regularly marketed to Black women contain chemicals that can cause cancer. These products include skin lighteners, hair perms, hair relaxers, acrylic nails, and Brazilian blowout treatments.

Skin lighteners, which may also be marketed as skin lightening or spot and acne removal creams and lotions, often contain hydroquinone — a known endocrine disruptor — and mercury. Hair relaxers (both lye and non-lye) are associated with hazards such as chemical scalp burn, scarring, dry skin, baldness, eye irritation, and dry, broken hair.

Hair relaxers are made with a base of sodium hydroxide, guanidine hydroxide, or ammonium thioglycolate, which are high pH chemicals, and can cause irreversible damage to both hair and scalp.

With that said, Black women are encouraged to avoid nail polishes that include toxic chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene and bring a safer neutralizing shampoo to the salon or simply go natural.

When shopping for beauty products, read labels closely and find safer alternatives using apps and websites such as Think Dirty, EWG’s Healthy Living, and Good Guide.

More than 40 percent of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s Status of Black Women in the United States. Black women are also 92 percent more likely to be killed by a person they know, and the person will most likely be a current or former intimate partner.

Roxane Gay, a feminist and author who wrote the book “Bad Feminist,” credits women accepting abuse to the doings of the criminal justice system, fame, and the media. In the chapter titled “Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown…,” Gay recalled when she read about the domestic violence dispute between Chris Brown and then-girlfriend Rhianna.

She said the violence was treated as entertainment and because Chris Brown was awarded two Grammys after only receiving a slap on the wrist for “his crime” that was “not an isolated incident,” women — famous, infamous, or not famous at all — have all been wronged by the example that was set.

“I am sorry our culture has treated women so poorly for so long that suffering abuse to receive celebrity attention seems like a fair and reasonable trade. We have failed you utterly,” Gay writes. “We fail you every single time a (famous) man treats a woman badly, without legal, professional, or personal consequence. Over and over again, we tell you it is acceptable for men–famous, infamous, or not at all famous– to abuse women. We look the other way. We make excuses. We reward these men for their bad behavior.”

Gay later challenged policymakers to do something about domestic violence, saying it is hard for women to leave relationships in which they are being abused because they often have nowhere to go and the best out that is currently offered is a shelter which is often unsafe or inadequate for a woman and her children.

As I write this piece about breast cancer and domestic violence, I feel that I must tell whoever is reading to encourage a woman or yourself to run for office and create policies and programs that will help other women.

We continue to have national, state, and local debates and conversations led by men about abortion, birth control, reproductive freedom, domestic violence, cancer, women’s health, and other female issues. It’s time for a change.

Imagine a world where women make decisions for their own bodies, and women create agencies and spaces where women can be safe. This can be a reality.

Jessika Ward

Jessika Ward is a journalist and the press secretary for the Dream Defenders, a youth-led organization that organizes Black and Brown youth to build power in Florida communities to advance a new vision the Dream Defenders have for the state.

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