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Black women with breast cancer face far greater risks. ‘Listen to your body.’

Wantanisha Morant survived after facing an aggressive form of the disease that is more common among Black women. Experts say early detection and prevention are key.
Breast cancer survivor Wantanisha Morant, left, in a 2018 family photo with her three children: JaNelle (right), JaNae (middle) and Jay in front.
Breast cancer survivor Wantanisha Morant, left, in a 2018 family photo with her three children: JaNelle (right), JaNae (middle) and Jay in front. [ Courtesy of Wantanisha Morant ]
Published Oct. 21, 2020

In June of 2010, Wantanisha Morant heard what she thought might be a death sentence.

The doctor said she had stage 2 breast cancer, and there wasn’t much to be done.

Morant went numb, didn’t even cry.

All the people she knew who had been diagnosed with cancer had died. Her own diagnosis had come back as triple-negative breast cancer, one of the hardest forms to treat, with high rates of death. Her life began to align with the statistics.

Death rates among Black women with breast cancer are 40 percent higher than for white women, even though the two groups are diagnosed at similar rates. For Black women in their 30s, the death rate is nearly double, according to the American Cancer Society, which marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.

In the beginning, the doctors weren’t concerned. But Morant fought for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.

Ten days after her diagnosis, at age 27, she started a chemotherapy regimen that lasted 16 weeks at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. The first treatment was like an out-of-body experience, she said, as if she was “floating and confused and hurting at the same time.”

After the second round, Morant gazed into the mirror, combed her fingers through her hair, and watched brown strands float to the floor. “That’s when it became real,” she said.

That’s when she had a really good cry.

Wantanisha Morant receives treatment for triple-negative breast cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center in August 2010.
Wantanisha Morant receives treatment for triple-negative breast cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center in August 2010. [ Courtesy of Wantanisha Morant ]
• • •

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, aside from skin cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. One in eight women develop the disease over the course of their lifetime, making it the second-leading cause of death for women, behind lung cancer. The lifetime risk for men is 1 in 1,000.

In Florida, from 2013 to 2017, the average number of new breast cancer cases per year was more than 16,000, with about 118 new cases per 100,000 women, according to the Florida Department of Health. For both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the rate of new cases was higher than statewide at 127 and 126 new cases per 100,000, respectively.

Both statewide and locally, more than 30 percent of diagnoses were caught in late stages, according to the same data.

One reason for the racial disparity in death rates is that Black women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a subtype that grows and spreads faster than others.

During her treatment, Morant would go in for chemotherapy every other week, which included a shot the day after. The combination, she said, caused pain in her bones that radiated through the bottoms of her feet.

Her nails turned black. Nausea took hold. And eventually, she shaved off all her hair in an attempt to regain some form of strength, to take control.

At first, she didn’t tell her kids about her diagnosis. Her daughters were in first and second grade, and her son was 3. The kids knew her grandmother had cancer, and that she had passed away.

“The correlation that they had with cancer was death,” Morant said.

Eventually she told them using a children’s book at Moffitt. There, doctors told her not to make promises she couldn’t keep. Instead of saying she’d beat breast cancer, she had to say she’d fight it, that she’d stay strong.

People focus so much on the patient, said Morant, that the caregivers and children are often left behind. She leaned on her mother as her rock and her children were her motivation.

It wasn’t until this year — at age 37, a decade after her diagnosis — that she realized how much her children were affected.

As one of her daughters, JaNelle Morant, took the stage for a high school debate, she spoke about breast cancer. About how Black women die at higher rates from the disease. About that summer in 2010 when her mother was too weak to coach her cheerleading as she had done in past years. About how cancer had hurt her too.

That day Morant was in the audience, bawling.

• • •

Today, there are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors across the country, and the cancer society says deaths due to the disease are declining.

Early detection and prevention are key, experts say.

“The earlier we catch it, the less treatment you need,” said Dr. Peter W. Blumencranz, a general surgeon at Morton Plant Hospital’s Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Clearwater. However, he added, “sometimes minority groups don’t get enough genetic testing.”

Such testing can inform patients about whether they have a mutation in the breast cancer genes, known as BRCA, which significantly impacts the chances they might develop breast or ovarian cancer during their lifetime, Blumencranz said.

Knowing whether one’s family has a history of these mutations allows patients to get ahead of treatment and take preventative measures. Still, according to the cancer society, more than 80 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history.

Experts say patients should be aware of their bodies and mindful about changes they notice, but self-exams should not serve as the only means of breast cancer prevention.

“The problem is by the time you can feel something, it’s too late,” said Blumencranz, who adds that mammograms can pick up on abnormalities that patients might not be able to feel with a self-exam. Even women who aren’t high risk should be proactive about getting mammograms, he said.

Women with average risk in their 40s should talk to their doctors about when to start screenings. And families should have open dialogues about any history of cancer because of its implications for others' risk and prevention, Blumencranz said.

Across Tampa Bay, some health centers offer vouchers for mammograms for uninsured or low-income patients to address the disparities.

Even with more aggressive subtypes of cancer, which disproportionately impact African American women, early detection remains critical, said Dr. Hatem Soliman, a medical oncologist with a specialty in breast cancer at The Center for Women’s Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Healthy lifestyle practices may reduce risk of getting the disease across races.

A balanced diet, frequent exercise, limited alcohol intake, weight management, and avoiding smoking can have a significant impact on overall health, said Soliman, who is calling on women — particularly in communities of color — to be advocates for health care access and healthy lifestyle changes.

• • •

After breast cancer, Morant had a number of different health scares. Testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation meant she had a strong possibility of also getting ovarian cancer. So, when cysts were found, she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

She has since gone back and pursued the master’s degree she stopped studying for prior to the diagnosis. And her children are doing great, she said. She believes the journey has left her stronger.

Morant poses for a photo during the American Cancer Society Making Strides Walk in 2019.
Morant poses for a photo during the American Cancer Society Making Strides Walk in 2019. [ Courtesy of Wantanisha Morant ]

In October, she wears pink every day in recognition of breast cancer awareness month. And as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. — the first Black Greek-letter sorority, whose official colors are pink and green — she wears pink with pride.

“Our lives literally can change in a second,” Morant said. “Know your body. Listen to your body and be an advocate for yourself.”

Ten years ago, she couldn’t make it through telling her story without crying. Today, she can share it with ease.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.