Who Cares for Boston’s Low-Income Breast Cancer Victims?

The following is testimony presented by YWCA Boston CEO Sylvia Ferrell-Jones to the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, April 23, 2011.

YWCA Boston is community health organization focused on gender and racial equality.  The first YWCA in the United States, we are 145 years young.  Our mission is to eliminate racism and empower women in Boston, and we promote a vision of peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.  I say that we are young because our work has evolved over time to meet the community’s current, pressing needs.

While the programs at YWCA Boston are varied, my comments today are focused on a critical crossroads of race and gender: namely the significant health disparities of Boston black women.

I would like to more specifically address the issue of breast cancer, the number two cause of death for black women in Boston.  Recent studies from the Boston Public Health Commission study show that – because of the efforts of the city, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, community health organizations and community educators like YWCA Boston, breast cancer screening rates for black women in Boston are the highest of any racial group – a very different scenario than 20 years ago. This suggests great progress of which we should be proud.

However, while black women are screened at a higher rate, their mortality rate continues to be significantly higher than that of any other group.  Why? It could be because of the types of cancer black women contract are more aggressive.  It could relate to the time of detection and the types of treatment, and that access to treatment and the ability to complete a full course of treatment are still compromised for low-income women of color.  It could also be that, compounding these issues, while black women make up 24% of the female Boston population, they make up only 3 – 5 % of the population of women being treated for breast cancer at Boston’s major teaching hospitals. What can be done to make sure Boston’s black female residents have the same access to the highest quality care as white women who come to Boston’s world-renowned medical institutions for care?

Additionally, there have been more than 100 scientific studies that connect systemic racism to the chronic health issues affecting women of color.  This issue was highlighted just recently by a WBUR report this week examining lower birth weight rates for black babies born in Boston. While city and nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, must address these direct health issues, we must all work together to address the underlying racism cause. We invite the MCSW and other organizations to join us as we address racism directly.

On April 29, 2011, YWCA Boston will hold its second annual Stand Against Racism.  This is a day of advocacy organized by YWs across the nation to acknowledge that racism still exists and that it cannot be ignored or tolerated.  I invite the Commission and all other organizations to register at www.standagainstracism.org to participate and take a stand against racism on April 29.  Thank you for your kind attention.