By Mark Anthony Neal
In 1979, R&B singer Minnie Riperton died of breast cancer at the age of thirty-one. With a five-octave vocal range, Riperton was best known for songs like “Memory Lane ” and “Lovin’ You.” (She’s also the mother of Saturday Night Live alumnus Maya Rudolph). However, for many Americans in the 1970s, Riperton was more than just an incredible singer, but the public face of breast cancer.
Riperton understood that with celebrity came responsibility, so she publicly announced her trauma on national television, confiding in Tonight Show guest host Flip Wilson-and the rest of the country. Riperton would soon become the first African-American public spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, receiving the organization’s “Courage Award” at a White House ceremony with then-President Jimmy Carter. Nearly thirty years after her death, black women continue to be at the forefront of preventative outreach efforts.
In comparison to white women, black women are less likely to get breast cancer. However, black women are far more likely to die from it, in many cases because they are typically diagnosed at a much later stage than are white women. In addition, white women have longer survival rates once they contract the disease, even while black women are diagnosed at younger ages. To further complicate the situation, cancer tumors found in black women tend to be more aggressive than those found in white women.
Among the more obvious reasons for these discrepancies is that black women, particularly poor black women, often don’t have the same healthcare resources that their white peers do. The National Cancer Institute suggests that even when black women do have access to healthcare, they are less likely to receive state-of-the-art diagnostic treatments and procedures.
Also, the health issues of black men are often more prominently addressed than those of black women. Thus, concerns about breast cancer among black women are often overshadowed by legitimate concerns for the high incidence of hypertension and prostate disease among black men, even though such diseases also disproportionately affect black women as well.
In the spirit of Minnie Riperton’s work three decades ago, Susan G. Komen for the Cure (the foundation responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons during Breast Cancer Awareness Month) began the “Circle of Promise” campaign to mobilize awareness about breast cancer in the black community, dispel myths that prevent black women from seeking early treatment and empower black women to become strong advocates for themselves and their loved ones. Susan G. Komen for the Cure estimates that in 2007, nearly 20,000 black women were diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 5,000 succumbed to the disease.
To help spread the word, the Circle of Promise campaign has employed the talents of a group of national ambassadors, including actress Gabrielle Union, artist Synthia Saint James, health expert Dr. Rovenia Brock and vocalist Lalah Hathaway (daughter of the late soul legend Donny Hathaway).
When asked about her involvement with Circle of Promise, Hathaway states, “I call it my grown-up job. It charges me to talk with women, particularly African-American women, about their health, because breast cancer is killing us at such an alarming rate. We’re always the last to be diagnosed and the first to die.”