It’s been over two decades since Yola Cain died of breast cancer at the age of 46. An accomplished woman who always held her feelings “close to the vest,” Cain was Jamaica’s first female pilot and one of the first women enlisted in the Jamaica Defense Force. Cain’s sister, Judy Lee, suspected Cain’s repressed emotions made her susceptible to contracting breast cancer.

Lee was shocked when she received a phone call from her doctor in 2017 informing her that she had breast cancer and would need to have a mastectomy. 

“I’m a happy person. I’m expressive and tell people how things are. I didn’t think cancer would happen to me,” said Lee. 

A five-year cancer survivor, Lee’s cancer did not begin with a lump, instead there was leakage from her left breast.  

 “The leakage was weird. Even though I suspected it, I never thought I would actually get cancer” said Lee, who wrote a book, “I Cry: Hope, Meditation and Guidance for Those Impacted by Breast Cancer,” chronicling her painful journey with the disease. 

Although White women contract breast cancer at a slightly higher rate than Black women  —  134 per 100,000 vs. 128 per 100,000 — the mortality rate for Black women from the disease is 42% higher than that of White women. 

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US for Black and Hispanic women. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 6,800 Black women will succumb to cancer in 2022.  

Structural racism, socioeconomic status, inadequate access to care healthcare, comorbidities (other health conditions) and medical mistrust are among the causes for the disparity in cancer outcomes for Black women with breast cancer according to the ACS. 

In 2019, researchers at the National Institutes of Health derived data from the Sister Study – a survey of more than 50,000 women across the US and Puerto, between the ages of 35 and 74 — which showed a link between the use of permanent hair dye and chemical hair straightener (relaxers) and a higher risk of breast cancer.

Permanent hair dye was associated with a 45% higher risk of breast cancer in Black women and 7% higher in White women.

Frequency was also a factor. Black women who dyed their hair every five to eight weeks had a 60% higher risk for breast cancer.

The use of chemical relaxers was associated with an 18% higher breast cancer risk among Black and White women, though Black women were far more likely to use relaxers – 74% of black participants reported doing so versus just 3% of White participants.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project, exposure to toxic beauty products should be of particular concern to Black women because they purchase and use more beauty products per capita than any other demographic – $7.5 billion annually – nine times more on hair products than the average consumer.

The Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project estimated Americans use roughly 10-12 personal care products each day, resulting in daily exposure to an average of 168 unique chemicals – many of which have been linked to endocrine disruption, earlier puberty cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm. Cosmetics are one of the least regulated consumer products on the market. 

The FDA does not have the authority to recall unsafe products, nor require pre-market safety testing of cosmetic ingredients. The federal law governing the $100 billion domestic cosmetics industry is only 2.5 pages long and has not been amended significantly since it was enacted over 80 years ago. 

On Oct. 18, the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project released a list of top non-toxic Black-owned beauty brands which features U.S. companies led by Black entrepreneurs that are creating safer beauty products, free of the toxic ingredients that are linked to health concerns disproportionately impacting Black women.

Massage Therapist Tricia Cochee, author of the forthcoming book “Holistic Health 101: Healthy Touch,” applauds the effort to educate Black women on what is in the products ingested through the skin and provide clean alternatives.  

A former participant in running events sponsored by multi-billion cosmetic companies, Cochee wants the industry to be held accountable.  

“I used to do these 5 and 10K runs sponsored by these large cosmetic corporations. I stopped when I thought about it. We’re all out here on behalf of breast cancer, and healing, and wellness, and all that stuff. But these very products that this large corporation is putting out to women are toxic,” said Cochee. “As consumers, we can only do what we can do. We don’t know what we’re being exposed to. We can be advocates for ourselves as much as we can. But these companies need to clean up their act.”

Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Sadaf Alipour and Rev. Dawnesha K. Beaver, program manager for Charles Drew University Kedren Mobile Street Medicine Program, do not dispute the study’s data, they caution the public to understand the context of the information and its relative meaning and impact.

Alipour commented that women participating in Sister Study were not from the “general population” and had a significant preexisting risk factor — a first degree family history of breast cancer. 

“The 45% increase in Black women remains comparable to many other minor risk factors,” Alipour said. “For example, the relative risk of breast cancer for a woman who has had her first full-term delivery above 30 years of age is 1.93 and 2.83 if she also has a first-degree relative with breast cancer” – which is also a 45% increase.

“As with a lot of cancer research, they’re not able to say it’s a direct correlation, they can only say it’s an association or there’s a higher risk factor, but they cannot say there is a direct correlation,” said Beaver. “My main concern is how can we release this type of information and empower both impacted spaces? The consumer who is using the products, but then also our local beautician or cosmetologist in the work that they’re doing. As we are improving access to health equity, we shouldn’t create economic disparity. This is people’s livelihood, people’s businesses. For me, it’s very important.”

Like many Black women, Lee has dyed and relaxed her hair, but she said what caused her cancer doesn’t matter to her now.

“I was under the opinion that to avoid cancer, you need to express yourself and not hold in your anger and all this stuff,” said Lee. “After you’ve been told you have cancer, it really doesn’t matter what caused it. What matters is that you get the treatment as fast as you can and it works for you.”

Dr. C. Suzanne Cutter specializes in surgical oncology and obesity medicine and is also president of the Charles R. Drew Medical Society.  She said the U.S. has some work to do in terms of consistently labeling the ingredients in products. She noted that there are about 1,300 additives that are banned in the European Union because they’ve been found to be dangerous. That’s compared to less than 20 of those same additives that are banned in the US.

Cutter believes maintaining a healthy immune system is the key to warding off cancer or if a person has cancer, a strong immune system is what will lead to better outcomes.

“If you look at two people, one person who has three cancers and you look at another person, who never had cancer, both of them had circulating cancer cells in their body at some time,” said Cutter. “It’s just that in this person with the three cancers, their immune system just wasn’t really able to recover from all of those DNA changes.  Whereas, the person who never did have cancer, their immune system was robust enough where they never developed a tumor. So, if we could support the immune system, that’s really, I think, the best thing that we can do overall.”

 “My journey in cancer was for me to get my voice. I’m so clear on that now,” said Lee. “I want Black women to speak up. The moment you start sharing your journey with people is the moment people are able to give you access to what you need to keep going. That is what’s really going to make the difference for us.”

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.

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