By Katherine Goree ‘16
On Thursday, Feb. 28, breast cancer expert Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade gave a lecture called “Closing the Knowledge Disparity Gap on Breast Cancer” at Harvey Mudd College.
Olopade, who was born and raised in Nigeria, came to the U.S. for the first time to visit her brother at Stanford University. A short time later, Olopade began her residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
Upon arriving in Chicago, Olopade was shocked to find that the South Side’s quality of life was more similar to that of her Nigerian neighborhood than that of Palo Alto, Calif. She had not expected to find so many people in America living on the fringes.
Now a professor and physician at the University of Chicago, Olopade and her colleagues are effectively the only breast cancer doctors in Chicago’s South Side. Most other breast cancer specialists in Chicago are located in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, making them generally inaccessible to residents of the South Side.
Today, there is a 62 percent disparity in breast cancer mortality rates between black and white women. According to Olopade, this disparity is due to the knowledge gap between black and white women, as well as the fact that women of diverse backgrounds are disproportionately underrepresented in research.
Women of African descent are more likely to have a genetic mutation that puts them at a higher risk of getting breast and ovarian cancers. Women with genetic mutations are 40 to 87 percent more likely to get breast cancer by the time they are 70 years old, and have a 16 to 68 percent higher risk of getting ovarian cancer by the same age. Hence, it is important to know whether women have genetic mutations. Olopade asserted that cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that is much more common among white women, has received much better research funding than diseases that are more common among black women.
Olopade emphasized the importance of paying attention to ancestry while practicing medicine and conducting research. Due to the overrepresentation of white Western women in medical studies, pharmaceuticals on the market are more effective for white women. Olopade calls this problem “pharmacoethnicity,” and emphasizes that diverse populations should be better represented in medical research.
Women from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have access to the same quality of preventative care that privileged women do. Olopade gave the example of mammogram trucks. Mammograms, though useful for detecting early stages of breast cancer, are not effective in detecting deadly breast cancer and thus do not reduce the number of cases of breast cancer in advanced stages like MRIs do. Olopade said that mammogram vans are often donated to poor communities, but they do not lower breast cancer mortality.
Olopade ended her lecture by stressing the importance of “democratizing knowledge.” She believes that educating women of diverse backgrounds about breast cancer is critical in ending the knowledge disparity about breast cancer and reducing the number of breast cancer cases for women of African descent.