In 2013, nearly 300,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer.  I am an oncologist at Howard University Hospital and I was one of 27,000 African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer that year.

Now cancer-free after aggressive treatment with chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and targeted therapy to reduce my risk of recurrence, I am about to celebrate my two-year anniversary as a breast cancer survivor.  I am grateful every day for the care I received.  As many do after hearing the words “you have cancer,” my family and I sought to give the journey purpose, so we shared our lives during treatment in Ken Burns’ documentary, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.” 

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I have also become adamant about educating Congress and other policymakers about the need for increased biomedical research funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find a cure.

Though making it through treatment was not easy, the most challenging part of the cancer battle is fearing what may happen after your treatment ends. There is still so much that we do not know about breast cancer, especially in African-American women.  

We know that, for most women, mammograms and rapid testing of suspicious results are the best first lines of defense.  But as a cancer surgeon and researcher at Howard University Cancer Center, I have seen that tumors are different for African-American women.  The tumors are more aggressive, which means the standard screening protocols don’t come soon enough, or treatments need to be more aggressive than for those of other ethnicities.

Although African-American women do not have the most new breast cancer cases, African-American women under 40 do, like me.  And compared with other ethnicities, we are less likely to have long-term cures because current therapies are targeted to fewer of our breast cancers. 

Quality access to breast cancer care is essential. It decreases, though does not eliminate, the disparities we see in breast cancer outcomes. As a believer in evidence-based treatment, it means we must do more.

While care is important, it isn’t enough.  We have to start sooner.  We have to restore NIH funding so the best medical researchers in America can do what they do best – discover and develop new treatments and cures for breast cancer, particularly in the African-American community where so little is known.

Congress should use every legislative tool it has available to restore funding for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health, including annual appropriations, creative new legislation, and removing the budget caps. Investing in federally funded breast cancer research is the only way this nation can begin to address the racial disparities in cancer and other diseases.

In particular, research dollars should be directed toward understanding what racial disparities mean to breast cancer and how to implement the best treatments for diagnosed African-Americans.

At Howard University, we have pulled together an extraordinary group of clinicians, researchers, navigators, oncology nurses, and genetic counselors to provide dedicated, tailored, evidence-based care. In August, we launched a Transdisciplinary Clinic that allows breast cancer patients to see all specialists on the same day, reducing the time between initial evaluation and beginning a personalized plan of care and survivorship.

My colleagues are dedicated to eliminating the disparities we see in breast cancer.  But we need Congress and the White House to do more when it comes to cancer and so many other diseases in the African-American community.  We need them to increase funding for NIH so that, one day, our Howard University breast cancer center can go out of business.  We need more research, we need better treatments, we need greater understanding, and we need a cure. 

Wilson is associate professor of Surgery at Howard University College of Medicine, and a breast cancer survivor.