• Action News Jax Investigates: Financial link to aggressive breast cancer

    By: Tenikka Hughes , Action News Jax

    Updated:

    As local women learn they have breast cancer, Action News Jax is looking into a new study that found their financial situations could be playing a role in their diagnoses.

    We spoke with a local doctor about the risk factors both black and white women face and with a young mother determined to fight for her life.

    Tabitha McDougle, 27, had been dealing with the pain in her body for months but said she never expected the diagnosis she got in December.

    McDougle said, “When she called, she said it was breast cancer, stage 4. I ,was, like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m about to do.’” 

    ​A single mother to 4-year-old Londyn, McDougle was working part time and did not have health insurance.  

    She said she was told it would take two months to be approved for Medicaid but she needed treatment immediately.  

    That’s when she said the team at UF Health in Jacksonville stepped in on her behalf.

    “They called me the next day and told me, 'I am about to fight for you to be seen',” said McDougle.

    Their effort got her approved for Medicaid in two weeks and they aggressively started to treat the breast cancer, which had spread to her neck and brain.

    Dr. Laila Samiian is chief of breast surgery at UF Health.  

    She’s seen countless stories like McDougle’s and wanted to take a deeper look.

    Samiian said, “My question was: Does the aggressiveness of breast cancer have any relation to poverty or socio-economic factors or is it more racially dependent?”

    Samiian’s research team studied 500 women.

    Half of them were black and half were white.

    The team divided the type of insurance the women had into three main categories: commercial, Medicare and Medicaid or charity insurance, in which the hospital picks up the cost.

    Samiian said, “The aggressiveness of breast cancer seems to be more pronounced in poverty-stricken populations.”

    She said her Medicaid and charity patients were more likely to be diagnosed with – HER2 and triple-negative - the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.

    That was the case with both black and white women.  

    Samiian said the financial challenges these women face can increase risk factors for cancer including higher stress levels, smoking, alcohol use, childbirth at a young age, lack of exercise, obesity and less healthy diets.  

    “All those things are more common in lower socio-economic populations, because they may not have the luxury if they are working two jobs and just putting something on the table,” the doctor said.  

    Samiian said a diagnosis usually involves major lifestyle changes for patients and she said the key to prevention is education and making those changes early.

    "We need to do it while kids are in school so they can avoid smoking and make healthy food choices,” Samian added.

    McDougle now eats a healthier diet and exercises with her daughter.  

    McDougle said of her daughter, “She’s a big help. She’s a handful. She’s been keeping me motivated.”

    Samiian hopes her study highlights the need for access to affordable health care and early intervention.

    Samiian said, “Everyone deserves to survive cancer. It shouldn’t just be the affluent.”

    After six rounds of chemo, radiation and hormone therapy, McDougle said her tumors have shrunk significantly and she’s confident she will be cancer-free.

    She encourages any woman who feels that something isn’t right with her body to go to doctor now.

    McDougle said, “If you feel it, check. Go get checked. Don’t worry about what’s in your pocket.”

    Samiian said UF Health provides a standardized treatment plan for breast cancer patients regardless of their insurance.  

    She found that Medicaid patients sometimes face delays because they have to wait to get authorization for each treatment or test.

    If you would like to donate to Tabitha McDougle's treatment for breast cancer, you can find her GoFundMe page HERE

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