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The Deadly Difference

Black women in Chicago are far likelier to die of breast cancer than white women, resulting in a disparity that’s nearly double what it is nationally. This pattern of racial inequality shows up locally with other diseases—evidence that Chicago is failing at narrowing its racial divide in health. Why? And what must be done?

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Martha Haley’s book is filled with pictures of women she has met through her support group, Celebrating Life. Some, including those pictured above, are living with breast cancer. But dozens of others have lost their battle with the disease. “Each was a living person, a human being,” she says.

 

Whenever breast cancer claims the life of another friend, Martha Haley inscribes the woman’s name and date of passing in a special book of remembrance. Haley, who’s waging her own tough fight against the disease, started compiling the book to honor the memory of women she came to know through Celebrating Life, the support group she founded a decade ago for African Americans who, like herself, have been diagnosed with breast cancer. The book is thick with photographs of the dead and with the poems and tributes Haley has composed to commemorate their lives. “I bonded with these women of color, and I watched them lose their battle,” she says. “It’s hard knowing and loving people and then saying goodbye.”

Haley was just 36 when she learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer that had invaded her lymph nodes. A teacher’s aide living in South Chicago at the time and raising an 11-year-old daughter and two teenage sons, she endured the surgical removal of her right breast and intravenous blasts of chemotherapy that caused her hair to fall out. When she could find no breast cancer support group for African American women, she formed Celebrating Life and started holding meetings each month at Advocate Trinity Hospital, on Chicago’s South Side. Through the group, she got an intimate glimpse into the disproportionate toll breast cancer takes on black women—in 2003, the mortality rate was 68 percent higher for African American women in Chicago than for white women, even though blacks were less likely to get the disease.

The women in the group who have died were mostly from the South and West sides of the city, many of them working-class, some without insurance. There are 75 enshrined in Haley’s book—so far. “Each was a living person, a human being,” she says. “These are mothers and sisters who have value in the community—mothers and sisters who make the community.” Now 48, Haley knows that someday, maybe soon, her own name will be added to this heartbreaking ledger of the lost. Her cancer returned in 2000, costing her the other breast, and has since spread to her lungs. “My battle is winding down now,” she says softly.

The book is many things—therapy for Haley, a repository of grief, a declaration of the dearness of life. But it is something more: an affront to basic ideals of fairness and equality. If the women smiling mutely from its pages had been white instead of black—if they had been blessed with the same financial advantages, faced fewer obstacles in accessing medical services, and received the same quality of care that many white people enjoy—there might be 30 fewer in the book, the statistics say, and today dozens of black families might not be grieving the irreplaceable loss of a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter. Haley knows all about the cruel racial imbalance in the statistics. “I’m tired of saying goodbye to women who should still be here,” she says.

 

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