Interns Help Facilitate Breast Cancer Conversations Among Young Black Women

Stories@Gilead - October 06, 2021

Taylor McKay, a senior at Florida A&M University, always knew she wanted to become a surgeon. But it wasn’t until she did an internship with TOUCH: The Black Breast Cancer Alliance, that she decided to specialize in breast oncology.

“After learning about the disparities in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment for Black women, it really reinforced in my mind how I could help my community,” she says.

Howard University sophomore Sydney Pero participated in the same internship, designed to use social media campaigns to educate young women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) about the importance of early cancer detection, clinical research and overall breast health.

Taylor and Sydney both quickly learned the importance of building early awareness among their peers: Black women have a 71% higher risk of death from breast cancer and a 39% higher recurrence rate than white women. Recent research also found that Black women diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly deadly form, are less likely to be treated with surgery and chemotherapy.

Initially, the two interns used their Instagram stories to share basic breast health facts and statistics with their followers. They soon learned there was a lot of overall misinformation about breast cancer, which led to them sharing more information on social media while also holding numerous campus discussions on the topic.

“The idea that you have to be a certain age was the main myth I had to dispel, reinforcing to my friends that yes, you can get breast cancer even when you’re young,” Sydney explains. “Or the fact that breast cancer doesn’t have to run in your family for you to be at risk. People would say, ‘Oh, I’m okay, because my mom doesn’t have it.’”

The women focused their social media campaigns around different issues, with Taylor pushing for more education around clinical trials in light of a historic mistrust of trials among Black communities.

“There’s currently only an average 3% participation rate of Black women in clinical trials,” Taylor explains. “I stressed in my campaign that trials are important because we can’t know how treatments affect Black women if we’re not participating in the research.”

In the end, Taylor even managed to change her grandmother’s mind on the topic. “She was one of the people that initially told me, ‘If I get breast cancer, I’d never do a clinical trial,’ but now that I’ve explained to her the importance of participating, she says she would consider joining one.”

Sydney, meanwhile, focused her Instagram stories on the importance of breast exams, especially after learning firsthand that this information isn’t always passed on from generation to generation. “My mom told me after I started the internship that she does breast exams every month, and that was something I never knew,” shares Sydney. “I always share this story when I talk about the importance of monthly self-exams and early detection, so that families don’t miss this opportunity to pass on knowledge to their children.”

The TOUCH internship has ended for both students, but they continue to advocate for breast health and awareness any chance they get. Sydney also just recruited a classmate to be part of the next internship group at TOUCH, which is a Gilead grantee.

“If I can start the conversation with my friends, hopefully they’ll in turn share the information with someone else too,” she says. “My goal is to promote an overall understanding of breast cancer before it personally affects someone.”

Photo: Pictured from left to right are Taylor McKay and Sydney Pero.

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