The singer’s aunt’s death of breast cancer inspired her to spread awareness of the importance of mammograms among Black women
Growing up, cancer wasn’t a big topic of conversation in Mary J. Blige’s community or family. So when the disease hit close to home, the singer was unprepared. “We don’t talk about that in Black communities,” she says. “But my aunt died from breast cancer, my grandmother died from cervical cancer, and one of my aunts recently died from lung cancer.”
That emotional connection led Blige to partner with the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) and Hologic, a medical-tech company focused on improving women’s health. Breast cancer can be especially dangerous for Black women: It has a 40 percent higher mortality rate for them, over white women. And earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology found that Black women were less likely to receive a digital breast tomosynthesis exam — and less likely to be screened multiple times during a five-year period than Caucasian women.
Blige’s aunt’s death of breast cancer came as a shock, one that inspired her to spread awareness of the importance of mammograms among Black women as part of the P.O.W.E.R. of Sure campaign, part of Hologic’s Project Health Equality. One of her efforts includes a video of her getting a mammogram to inform and encourage others to do the same.
“If my aunt had had the access to the proper health care,” she says, “or if people just knew that you don’t have to go to your grave with all these unhealthy secrets… My aunt didn’t know. And that’s what’s wrong — in our culture and our community, we don’t know.”
KCM spoke recently with Blige and Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the BWHI, about breast cancer screening disparities for Black women, how we can make a change, and what women — especially Black women — need to know about mammograms.
KCM: You’ve been working together since 2020 to raise awareness of how breast cancer affects Black women. What changes have you witnessed?
Linda Goler Blount: I was telling Mary not too long ago that I happened to speak with a group of women in the summer — two of them had already gotten mammograms because they saw Mary’s video of her getting a mammogram. Two more said they had put it off in the past, and this was going to be their first screening. The key message was that Mary gave them permission to be afraid, but to still go ahead and get the test. So that’s critical.
Mary, how old were you when your aunt died of breast cancer, and how did that inspire you to become an advocate for breast cancer awareness?
Mary J. Blige: I was already in my 30s when my aunt passed. We didn’t know she had cancer, so she was in the hospital dying but she’d probably had it for a while. That affected me in a major way. That’s one of the reasons why it was so important for me to work on this campaign. It was very important to me to be an example because I’ve sold a lot of records, and women would come up to me and say, “Mary, your song saved my life…” So when this opportunity came, I thought, Why don’t I do this for my culture, and for myself?
Linda, can you tell us what Black women need to know about breast cancer — and what they should ask their doctors?
Linda Goler Blount: As I think Mary illustrated, knowing your family history is critical. If you’ve got a family history of cancer, not even just breast cancer, you’ll probably want to get a baseline screening mammogram at 35. You have to talk to your doctor about it. But Black women need to know that we get breast cancer younger now — 25 percent of our breast cancers occur under 50, and about 8 percent occur under the age of 40. That means early detection is critical because we tend to have our cancers detected later.
When we get the statistic that Black women die 42 percent more, it’s because our cancers get detected later, when they’re harder to treat. So there’s nothing biological or genetic about it. What we have to do is start with annual screening mammograms at age 40. Know your body, know your family history. If things change, bring those factors to the attention of your doctor, get your well-woman visits, and then practice a healthy lifestyle: Don’t smoke, eat a healthy diet, get physical activity. All of those things will lower your risk. We don’t know how to prevent breast cancer, but we do know how to lower your risk. And if we can detect it early, then you don’t have to die from breast cancer.
What about women who have a family history of cancer: Should those women get a mammogram even earlier?
Linda Goler Blount: Well, they should talk to their physicians, who may be likely to recommend a baseline screening at 35 or maybe even 30. It depends on the family history and on the physician.
What should people know about the different types of mammograms?
Linda Goler Blount: 3D mammography is superior, period — all women should get them. They’re able to detect more cancers if they’re there. Fear is a major reason why women don’t get mammograms in the first place. But the key is to be afraid, but go anyway. Because once you find out you don’t have it, you won’t have to worry. And if you do, and you’ve caught it very early, then you can talk cures.
Mary, so many of the choices you’ve made in your career revolve around empowering young Black women. How did your involvement in this partnership fit into that narrative?
Blige: With the video of me actually going to get the mammogram, I let them go with me to get my mammogram. So being an example is what I offer. You know, whenever Janet Jackson did something when we were little, we did whatever she did. You know what I mean?
Linda, we know that racism plays a role in healthcare disparities. Can you elaborate on that?
Linda Goler Blount: Well, racism shapes society and our healthcare systems. The fact that Black women die at a much higher rate of breast cancer simply reflects who got access and who didn’t. Access means where the mammography center is located, where the best cancer-treatment sites are, where the best physicians are. That’s typically not in areas where Black women live, particularly in the South. So access is the issue, but also Black women’s providers, in general, are less likely to recommend a 3D mammogram — or mammography, period. And if breast cancer is detected, they’re less likely to recommend aggressive treatment.
All of this has to do with how providers and the medical industry perceive Black women — and frankly, the value of their lives. Plus, some of the policy decisions around screening were based on studies done in Sweden and Canada, and there were no Black women in those studies. These studies suggested we start looking for breast cancer at the age of 50. But given what we know about when breast cancer occurs in Black women, why would we wait to start looking? If we waited until 50, another 1200 to 1300 black women would die every year. We don’t have a single longitudinal study on breast cancer in Black women — clearly, we need to study what’s going on, and why we get it younger. But until that happens, the last thing we need to do is to tell Black women to wait to start looking for breast cancer.