With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, singer Mary J. Blige is helping raise awareness of the disease by sharing her personal experience with how breast cancer has affected women in her family, and how she was unaware of the importance of early breast cancer screening because cancer was not a topic that was discussed in Black families like hers. She also highlighted how breast cancer is more fatal for Black women, and how she wants to change that. As part of her efforts to help raise awareness of breast cancer in Black communities, Blige recently partnered with MedTech company Hologic, which is focused on improving women’s health. The Grammy award-winning singer shared her comments at a Nasdaq Marketplace event this month organized by the company.
As part of Hologic’s recently launched Global Women’s Health Index and Project Health Equity, the topic of the event was “Screening the System: A Dialogue on Bias and Breast Health.” In addition to Hologic, Mary J. Blige has also partnered with the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) to help raise awareness about the disparities in early breast cancer screening and outcomes for Black women.
At the event, Blige joined moderator and journalist Sheinelle Jones; Black Women’s Health Imperative president and CEO Linda Goler Blount, MPH; and Chicago-based physician Dr. Arlene Richardson to talk about why Black women lag behind in screening and have poorer disease outcomes.
Blige shared how closely and deeply cancer has affected her family, as an aunt of hers died from breast cancer, her grandmother died from cervical cancer and another aunt recently died from lung cancer. But growing up, cancer wasn’t a topic that was really discussed in families or communities around her, she explained. “We don’t talk about that in Black communities,” she said. That’s why the singer was caught off guard when the disease hit so close to home.
A recent study found Black women are less likely to receive mammograms and are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease compared with white women.
Hologic’s Project Health Equity focuses on health inequities faced by Black and Hispanic women in the US, while its Global Women’s Health Index deals with disparities in preventative care for women around the world.
Related: WHO Honors the Legacy and Contribution of Henrietta Lacks
Speaking to Katie Couric Media, Blige explained that her personal connection with the disease is why her partnerships with breast cancer awareness initiatives are so important to her. “I was already in my 30s when my aunt passed. We didn’t know she had cancer, so she was in the hospital dying but she’d probably had it for a while. That affected me in a major way. That’s one of the reasons why it was so important for me to work on this campaign. It was very important to me to be an example because I’ve sold a lot of records, and women would come up to me and say, ‘Mary, your song saved my life…’ So when this opportunity came, I thought, Why don’t I do this for my culture, and for myself?”
Black women also face a higher risk of breast cancer at younger ages. Blige explained that about 25 to 28 percent of breast cancers among Black women occur under the age of 50 and eight percent under 40. In addition, another part of the problem is that breast cancer studies don’t include Black women, she said.
Recently, Xtalks hosted a webinar discussing the importance of increasing representation in breast cancer clinical trials. One of the speakers in the webinar, Ricki Fairley, Chief Executive Officer, TOUCH, The Black Breast Cancer Alliance, and a breast cancer survivor, noted that Black patients make up 12 percent of new breast cancer cases in the US, but only represented three percent of participants in breast cancer clinical trials that led to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals between 2008 and 2018.
There is also the issue of medical mistrust among Black communities, owing to a long history of medical racial injustices like the Tuskegee syphilis study and the case of Henrietta Lacks to name only a few. And racism in the US health care system still persists today.
At the Hologic event, Blige said that she herself “didn’t know about breast cancer or mammograms until I was 40 and I was in the music business and I was trying to take care of myself. My body started talking so I started listening.”
“I found out about it at the GYN. They don’t discuss this when we’re children. They don’t say, ‘Go get a mammogram.’ You learn about this as you get older. So they don’t speak about it and that’s why they end up in the hospital with two weeks to live and now you know about it. That’s why it’s extremely important to me.”
Other celebrities have also partnered with Hologic over the years, including Grammy-award sinning singer-songwriters Sheryl Crow, who shared her breast cancer story, Ciara, who has spoken about the importance of cervical cancer screening, and recently talk show mogul Oprah Winfrey.
In a video, Oprah shared her message about the importance of early breast cancer screening, urging women to get their annual mammograms.
Hologic’s Project Health Equality encourages women to make their health a priority.
“I’m here to let women know, no matter how scary it is or who’s telling you it’s scary, take care of you. Take care of your health,” said Blige. “My health is my wealth. My health is my beauty. Beauty is healing from the inside out.”
“Mary J. Blige has albums that help women heal from a broken heart. So now I want to help women heal from breast cancer. I want to help us feel beautiful all the way around.”
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