Does racism cause breast cancer?

Breast Cancer Link to Racial Discrimination” No doubt some demagogues who would have us think every problem blacks have is due to persistent racism would have no problem with that headline. But problematic the study remains.

The headline comes from a study conducted at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. In it, black women completed a questionnaire in 1997 that included questions on perceived discrimination in two domains: “everyday” discrimination (such as being treated as dishonest) and major experiences of unfair treatment due to race (such as job, housing, and police). From 1997 to 2003, 593 incident cases of breast cancer were found.

Although I haven’t been able yet to obtain a full copy of the study, it appears there was a weak non-statistically significant association between women claiming discrimination and breast cancer. No significance means even that apparent weak association means nothing. So the authors sliced the data at the 50-year mark and – voila! – statistical significance. Among women under 50, those who reported discrimination on the job had a 32% higher rate of breast cancer than those who didn’t report it. There was a 48% increase for those who reported discrimination in all three situations – housing, job, and police – relative to those who reported none.

“These findings,” concluded the authors, “suggest that perceived experiences of racism are associated with increased incidence of breast cancer among U.S. black women, particularly younger women.”

Now here’s what they didn’t tell you.

First, overall breast cancer rates are much lower for black women than for white women, with 118 cases per 100,000 for blacks versus 132 per 100,000 for whites for the years 2000-2004.

That doesn’t exactly jibe with racism as a carcinogen.

Second, not only was there no significant association until the authors starting slicing the data, but even after the slicing the data were barely within the realm of statistical significance. In other words, the association is far weaker than it appears.

Third, there is no known biological explanation for the alleged phenomenon. The one suggested in the news stories is stress. Stress can indeed cause terrible health problems, as I have documented in countless articles. With faux media-spread syndromes, we’re literally making people sick by telling they should be sick. Stress can even kill, as with heart disease. But although many have looked, nobody has yet found a link between stress and cancer.

Assuming the Howard study shows any kind of connection between perceived racism and breast cancer, “perceived” may be the key word. People who perceive things differently from other people are different from other people. There may be a link between discrimination-perceivers and non-perceivers that we ought to look for.

Meanwhile it is true that younger black women (those under 54) have a slightly higher rate of breast cancer than their white counterparts, 94 versus 91 per 100,000 for 2004. Why might that be? And why might older black women be less at risk?

There are many differences between black and white women that we know of that do have biological plausibility. The most obvious is genetics. This notwithstanding a recent quote from a black doctor that – I’m not making this up – anybody who says blacks and whites are genetically different is a racist. So blacks are just darker than whites because they spend more time in the sun, right?

Meanwhile, we know that Ashkenazi Jews are especially prone to breast cancer because of specific identified genes. Therefore we must scientifically conclude that … Mike Fumento is both a racist and an anti-Semite.

Yet we know of many other differences, such as weight, diet, and smoking. Bottom line: If you’re really interested in exploring differences between breast cancer rates among different groups, you should probably devote your resources to paths that actually might lead to answers rather than to headlines.

Thanks to John for letting me guest blog! Please visit my “hybrid website” at

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