Mary J. Blige took the stage in Manhattan earlier this week, but she wasn’t there to sing. At the Nasdaq Marketplace, the Grammy-award winner was part of a panel of women, brought together by Hologic, who recently released their Global Women’s Health Index, to discuss the topic “Screening the System: A Dialogue on Bias and Breast Health.” She 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 what’s keeping Black women from getting mammograms and causing us to be more than 40 percent more likely to die from the disease.
The panelists covered a number of the reasons that is, from the best healthcare options not being in close proximity to many women of color, medical mistrust, fear of mammograms being painful, and insurance coverage issues. There’s also the confusion of conflicting guidelines for when people should get screened being based on research done that rarely includes Black women, and the fact that many have negative experiences with doctors that keep them from going back.
“I think the impact racism has on these disparities is often overlooked,” said Dr. Richardson. “Racism is a threat to public health. Oftentimes it’s overlooked and often times it’s misunderstood, the history of race in the medical profession and the part that it plays and continues to play in the access to care and the type of care we’re able to give our patients in low-income communities.”
There’s also COVID, and the fact that people stopped making appointments for checkups and preventative care, which is causing delayed diagnosis.
But as Blige pointed out, we also need to talk about the lack of conversation being had at home about the importance of getting mammograms and how serious health issues often run through our families. That was the main reason why the singer wanted to partner with Hologic, a medical technology company focused on women’s health, to spread awareness.
“My aunt died from breast cancer. My grandmother died from cervical cancer and one of my aunts just died from lung cancer,” she said. “What happens is they end up in the hospital and there’s no one in our families speaking about it when we’re younger.”
According to the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, she didn’t get the message about the importance of mammograms until she was at the age that it was time to start getting them. It wasn’t being discussed at home, despite different cancers being prevalent in her family tree.
“I 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,” she said. “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.”
The recommendation from the panel of experts was that women, starting at the age of 40, not 50, need to get a mammogram every single year to avoid cancer being detected at a later stage, requiring aggressive action.
“We develop breast cancer younger. About 25 to 28 percent of our breast cancers occur under the age of 50. Eight percent occur under the age of 40,” said Goler Blount. “If we were to wait to start looking for breast cancer at 50, another 12 to 1300 Black women would die every year. Why would we do that?”
“The problem is the studies don’t include Black women. Clearly things are different,” she added. “We need more research on Black women and why cancer develops in Black women and what that means for our lived experience before we apply a policy to them.”
So at 40, start getting screened (and advocate for a 3D mammogram), doing so yearly to ensure that if breast cancer is found, you can get treatment early in the hopes of curing it. And as the panelists shared, start being more vocal about mammograms with those around you, as it can make all the difference. Blige, who has been a beloved voice to Black women since her debut in the early ’90s and prioritizes yearly screenings, is using her voice now to spread the message.
“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,” she said. “My health is my wealth. My health is my beauty. Beauty is healing from the inside out. If you’re sick you can’t be healthy, you can’t glow, you can’t shine. You can’t be an example to people. I’ve been in the forefront all my life as Mary J. Blige the singer: Mary J Blige fell on her face, Mary J. Blige got back up, Mary J. Blige’s business is on Twitter and 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.”