CHARLOTTE, NC — After breast cancer killed her mother, a cousin, and three aunts, Felicia Mahone learned she had the most aggressive form: Triple-Negative.
"When you tell people you have breast cancer, the look on their face changes. It's a look like you're going to die," she said.
Mahone was just 27 and uninsured. She says the women in her family had remained silent about the disease.
"it is something that is common around African American women. I don't know, I think it's a sense of shame that people feel," she explained.
For more than 30 years, breast cancer rates in the U.S. have dropped. But not all women have benefited equally. In fact, study after study shows African American women dying from breast cancer at a much higher rate than other women.
New research from the American Cancer Society shines a blinding light on the disparity. It says African American women are getting mammograms and learning they have the disease, but some don't seek treatment. Here in the Carolinas, the numbers are alarming.
In South Carolina, the mortality rate for Caucasian women with breast cancer is 20.5 percent, but 29 percent for African American women.
In North Carolina, the disparity is even bigger. 19.7 percent for Caucasian women and 29.1 percent for African American women.
So why is there such a disparity for African American women? There are different factors that come into play. Some are biological.
"African American women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age. African American women have a bigger likelihood of being diagnosed with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer, which is a more aggressive subtype," explained Dr. Julie Fisher, an oncologist with Atrium Health's Levine Cancer Institute.
Doctor Otis Brawley with the American Cancer Society says women often delay treatment because of financial hardship.
"Sometimes it's 'I can't afford to go see the doctor'. Sometimes it's simply 'I have a job and I can't take time off from my job,'" he said.
"Some women face issues with transportation. They have difficulty getting to a doctor's appointment. Some women have a difficult taking time off of work or getting child care," said Dr. Fisher.
Dr. Brawley says delayed treatment means a long painful disease that could be prevented.
"We see people that actually know they have breast cancer, know they have a problem, watch it grow for a long, long time, and ultimately, they come to us when it's a disease that we can't treat very effectively," he said.
Felicia Mahone lost her job to get treatment, but now she's a patient advocate, supporting other women who have trouble accessing care. She said she hopes all women will fight for treatment.
"If we would love ourselves as much as we love our children then, oh my god, the disparities that we have with this thing, with this breast cancer in African American women, it would go away," she said.
Navigating the healthcare system and transportation are two additional barriers keeping women from accessing critical cancer treatment.
The American Cancer Society asks women delaying treatment to go to their website for additional resources.