Breast Cancer, Black Women, and Driving Better Outcomes with Athena Jones

Athena Jones joins the podcast to share her experience as a two-time breast cancer survivor currently researching the drivers of and solutions for more equitable breast cancer outcomes across the country. Athena is a national correspondent for CNN and has reported extensively on race relations and racial disparities for nearly a decade.

About Athena

Athena Jones serves as a CNN national correspondent based in New York. She was formerly a CNN White House correspondent, covering President Trump and his administration for all of the network’s programs and platforms.

Jones started with the network as a general assignment correspondent in 2011. She has reported on politics and on a wide range of general news stories for programs across the network from breaking news to national stories. She has covered debates over immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act, the war against ISIS and debt and budget issues, in addition to street protests against police brutality, Ebola, the disappearance of University of Virginia college student Hannah Graham, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flt 370, stories related to the #MeToo movement, Supreme Court decisions, weather events and the arts.

Previously, Jones was a White House producer with NBC, where she wrote packages, produced story segments and reported on air for MSNBC and NBC News. Jones covered the presidential campaigns of then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 election cycle for NBC and the National Journal. Prior to her work at NBC, Jones served as a freelance segment producer for CNN. In addition, from 2001 to 2003, she worked as a reporter for Reuters based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she covered the Argentine presidential elections, the farm industry, the collapse of the country’s economy and other general news stories. Prior to Reuters, Jones reported on politics and the economy in both Chile and Argentina for Bloomberg News.

Jones graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in Government and earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She studied Spanish language, literature and arts and European politics at the University of Madrid Complutense in Madrid, Spain; and Islamic studies at the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt, with Duke University.


Adam (00:03):

Support for the Real Pink Podcast comes from Amgen oncology, Amgen oncology strives to serve patients by transforming the promise of science and biotechnology into therapies that have the power to restore, help or save lives. Amgen is developing innovative medicines like biosimilars for difficult to treat cancers and is proud of their first-in-class therapeutic approach aimed to dramatically improve outcomes. Learn from Susan G Komen. This is real pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room. Athena Jones is a national correspondent for CNN and has reported extensively on race relations and racial disparities that are nine years at the network. Some of her recent work has focused on the disproportionate impact. COVID-19 has had on black communities, something we also see in breast cancer. As black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women. Athena herself is a two-time breast cancer survivor, and currently researching the drivers and solutions for more equitable breast cancer outcomes across the country. Athena, it is a pleasure to have you on today’s show. Welcome.

Athena (01:25):

Thank you for having me, Adam, glad to be here.

Adam (01:27):

Ah, so good to talk to you that feel like you’re going to have some amazing insight, but let’s get started with your background. You went through to breast cancer, diagnosis and treatment. Tell us what your care was like. Tell us what that was like.

Athena (01:41):

Well, first of all, both of my diagnosis came as a huge shock to me because this is not something that had run in my family. I was very young, under 40 both times. Wow. Yeah. I mean 36 and 39. It’s just, wasn’t at all on my radar, but when it happened I got to work and I had excellent care. And in my view, I was living in Washington DC at the time. And during both of my diagnoses. And so I had support from friends, family. I had journalists who were connecting me with people to talk about what to expect. I had a friend, one friend or another come with me to speak with the doctors at a couple of different hospitals. I was considering being treated at to help me make that decision. Do I want to be at a big hospital? Won’t be a smaller, kind of more a family field hospital.

Athena (02:28):

A couple of them took notes for me during some of those meetings so that I could focus on what the doctor’s saying, because you hear this so much that, you know, you’re getting all this information, are you really digesting it? And now the first bout, which was in 2012, late 2012, was it involved a double mastectomy? I had a ductal carcinoma inside too, but it wasn’t invasive. It was in one breast. So we decided to take an aggressive approach since I was only 36, did a double mastectomy and really nothing else we didn’t do or chemotherapy. And I cancer didn’t indicate the need for that. And I thought, Oh, I’m done. You know, have the surgery recover a few months later have reconstruction. And that was that the second diagnosis was much more involved because I had to have surgery to remove the cancer. But then I also had to have six rounds of chemo, seven weeks of radiation.

Athena (03:20):

I should mention the chemo actually with Herceptin. One of the treatments lasted a full year, but the sort of toxic part of the chemo was six rounds. Later I had seven weeks of radiation and I’ll tell you, the anti-nausea medicine helped me a lot. I didn’t have any issues with getting nauseous enough to throw up. Thankfully now the radiation did cause us some lymphedema symptoms with the swelling of the arm and then my left arm or the lymph nodes had been removed. And that was pretty depressing to me at the time because, you know, you try to keep things in proper perspective. You’re thankful to be alive and yet, while you’re alive, you’re you still feel like, you know, I have to deal with, I’ve had to deal with so much and now I have to deal with this extra thing. But again, there, the hospital really helped me deal with that and get these sort of compression sleeves and, and that issue was more or less resolved itself. So I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had a good, a good experience.

Adam (04:13):

And so, you know, through your experience and in your research about breast cancer disparities, what has surprised you the most?

Athena (04:20):

Well, and this is kind of crazy to admit, but I think what has surprised me the most is that the disparities are so significant. It is something that perhaps should have been obvious to me as a black woman. Who’s grown up in America, whose parents lived under segregation, that kind of the socioeconomic and racial issues. They play a role across the board and everything. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it as these, these unequal outcomes when it comes to breast cancer, but it’s not something I’ve been focused on. Even after my own experience. I wasn’t focused on it until a friend of mine who was a documentary filmmaker approached me about getting involved in a project on raising awareness about early detection using the story of my two bouts with breast cancer as a jumping off point, since I only found my cancer at 36, because my doctor happened to believe in doing a early screening, just one baseline mammogram at 35 or 36, thank God for me that I did that.

Athena (05:15):

And so my first thought then was, you know, I’m a journalist who covers the news. Do I really want to be part of the story? And so I wanted to look beyond me to figure out how can we address this in a broader way. And that is when I discovered that data point, we hear so much about that. You just mentioned black women on average, 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And we also know that the disparities are much worse in some places. So I was surprised initially just at the, at the fact of it at the number, another thing that has surprised me as I’ve done more research is that in many places, the gap in survival rates is getting bigger, not smaller, despite all these advances and more people having access to healthcare. So that’s a real concern. It shows that more work is necessary. And of course, this is important because as, as the listeners of this podcast will know, breast cancer is incredibly common in America, about one in eight women will be diagnosed during their lifetimes. And so we’re talking about a lot of lives, a potentially effective, or cut short by these disparities, a lot of potential excess deaths among black women in the coming years, if these issues are not addressed.

Adam (06:19):

That’s right. So what have you seen in communities across the country that you think might be contributing to some of these disparities?

Athena (06:27):

This is the question that really gets to the heart of the matter. And we know that there are, of course, a lot of overlapping factors here. Yes. I think some of it, when it comes to awareness, some of it may be attributed to a lack of awareness, not enough discussion about health issues like this in the black community. There’s often a certain stigma that people attach to a cancer diagnosis. There’s a sense that, you know, talking about it is like Erin, your family’s dirty laundry. And so people don’t talk about these things. People don’t get screened, the disease can’t be caught early, that’s a problem. And so that has to change. It’s why we’re doing this. It’s why I’m doing my documentary project, but there are many other factors there’s socioeconomics, there’s genetics. And it’s also impossible to disconnect these disparities from what I just mentioned, that the issue of America’s legacy of racial discrimination when it comes to socioeconomic factors, we know that in part due to that legacy, blacks have higher poverty rates than whites.

Athena (07:23):

We know that blacks are more likely to be uninsured or under-insured more likely to live in more polluted environments and may have less access to healthy foods. You know, we talk about urban food deserts and it’s something I can relate to. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and I went to church downtown in a part of downtown where it was rare to see a grocery store. You saw more liquor stores and grocery stores. Whereas out in the suburbs where I lived, there were at least four, four, and four supermarkets or grocery stores within a three-mile radius. So it’s about people’s overall health, but it’s also about access to healthcare access to high-quality care. Because where and how you’re treated, of course, can make a difference. The technicians at hospitals or clinics, making sure they have updated appointments, proper training, continuing training. We also know there’s often a longer period between when black women get an abnormal mammogram say, and when that issue is resolved through a biopsy or what have you. And we know that these treatment delays can make a real difference in survival rates. And, and there are even really basic issues that, that a lot of women struggle with black women and other women too, that make treatment harder. For instance, you know, struggle with finding transportation, to get across town for your appointment or your, or your chemo session, not being able to afford to take off work or not being allowed to take off work having to care for family members those types of issues. And you know, and the other thing that we hear a lot of talk about when you examine this closely is that it’s really important for black women to get the proper standard of care, the proper dosage and medicines and treatment options that are of the standard treatment.

Athena (08:57):

We research suggests that black women are less likely to receive the recommended standard of care. And some of this may be connected to this idea of implicit bias. We begun to hear more about in recent years, there’s been a good amount of research showing the doctors often unconsciously, that treat patients who are black or another minority, or perhaps people who may not speak English as their first language, but they’re treated differently than white patients, that these doctors may communicate differently, spend less time in the consultation. And when it comes to discussing treatment, they may not offer the same treatment options. Like for instance, with agent therapy to ward off cancer, after treatments, what’s something that I’m, I’m now taking the course, the cost of these therapies can make a difference too. And that’s also an issue but we know that black women with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer are less likely to be referred for genetic counseling than white women are.

Athena (09:49):

So this is an issue across the healthcare system. I mean, just this week, the American heart heart association pointed out or said that structural racism is driving disparities that are killing, not just blacks, but Hispanics, American, Indian, Alaska, native, and other minorities at greater rates than, than whites. And we know they said black and Hispanic patients are much less likely to make it out of the hospital alive than white patients, even when controlling for socioeconomic status. So there’s a lot going on here. And of course, last thing, there’s a matter of genetics. We know that black women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with the more aggressive and harder to treat triple-negative breast cancer for which targeted therapies like Herceptin. But when I took, as part of my treatment targeted therapies have yet to be developed for TMBC so more research and more focused on this is needed.

Athena (10:38):

And that means making sure the more black patients have access to clinical studies and trials and are encouraged to be a part of them. And I said, that was the last thing, but the other last thing, cause I mentioned the age situation, we need to look at screening guidelines. We know that black women are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer at a younger age and with cancer. That is at a more advanced stage. Both of my diagnoses, as I mentioned, came before I turned 30, I was 36 and the second time 39 and 40 is when the guidelines suggest them screening began. So do those guidelines need to be adjusted to take into consideration racial differences. So that was a long answer, but it’s because it’s a multi-layered issue as you know,

Adam (11:17):

No, it’s a, it’s a huge issue. In addition to all of that, COVID has brought to the forefront that, that black men and women are disproportionately impacted by health issues and, and it’s, it’s becoming more and more reported. And a lot of people probably didn’t realize that before now. I know you’ve reported extensively on this and, and brought a lot of media attention. Do you think that the media can play a role in moving us beyond awareness into solutions?

Athena (11:42):

I think so. I think the media can and should play a role. Yes. Awareness is a big part of it. It’s a big part of the power of the media, just raising the issue and helping to spur about solutions. I don’t think it’s necessarily our role to, to have the answers. We’re not the experts the way I see it as our job is to ask the questions and to keep asking them to find the right people, to talk to the ones who are doing the community outreach and the screenings and the ones who are treating the ones we’re doing the research, talking, talking to people who can talk about what they’re seeing is working and what isn’t. And I think we in the media amplified those successful strategies and should, but again, much of our world, the way I see it is to highlight the issue.

Athena (12:25):

And that’s one reason I, I try to do what I’m doing by being more vocal. And it’s something that I try to highlight, as you mentioned in my COVID coverage because you know, you gotta be frank that the COVID disparities just like the death of George Floyd and may these, these have really opened people’s eyes about these systemic structural issues with race and socioeconomics. And so we have to continue in the media to highlight the issue and to ask and to ask and to ask again, what is necessary, what is working and what isn’t working.

Adam (12:56):

Mm, yeah, yeah, that’s right. I totally agree. And I, and thank you for the work that you’re doing there. I, I genuinely appreciate it. I know at Komen coming appreciates it as well. So have you heard any local or national ideas that you think could solve or just even begin to solve the disparities issue at large?

Athena (13:14):

Absolutely. I mean, this is something that certainly common is involved in it in all kinds of organizations across the country. And as part of my documentary project, we’ll be profiling organizations and advocates who are working at the community level to support black breast cancer patients to bring screenings to communities because we know how important early detection is. We also know that there are programs that help breast cancer patients navigate the healthcare system, which can be incredibly intimidating and complicated. And we know that these, these patient navigators who help ensure cancer patients get diagnosed in a timely manner and get the proper follow-up care. They make it to their appointments, that kind of work. We know a Sage live. So that’s an example of more broadly, I think, more research and discussion. This is going to be necessary to find more solutions, especially going beyond the community level.

Athena (14:03):

Something that I’ve found in talking to doctors is that, you know, some frustration that there’s a lot of focus on what the individual should be doing. Like, you make sure you get your screening, but there are bigger issues here. And other challenges, what I mentioned before, how do you fight the implicit bias or unconscious racism among healthcare providers? There’s a little bit of social science research on this, but you also see a lot of resistance, not just among doctors, but among the broader community to confronting this issue of systemic racism and the COVID stuff. And the George Floyd stuff has helped a bit, but it can still be a fraught conversation in America because people don’t always want to, to confront it. Even if they’ve begun to they don’t, they haven’t really gone a step further. So bottom line here is this is complicated. It’s a multi-layered issue. It needs to be addressed in multiple ways at the community level and at the systemic level.

Adam (14:53):

Yeah, yeah. That’s right. So let’s talk about how our listeners can begin to address it. What can people do to be change agents in their communities so that these disparate health outcomes are not continuously happening?

Athena (15:05):

I think this is a tough question, because I think that, you know, it can feel difficult as an individual, as just one person to feel like you can make a difference on an issue that’s so big and that’s, that’s understandable. I certainly feel that way. I think it’s not surprising to others, but I do think that individuals, even ones who don’t have a personal experience with cancer themselves, or maybe don’t even know anyone who’s gone through this, you can still do your part to help raise awareness about the need to stay on top of screenings, even just among your own friends and family asking folks, have you do, do you get a mammogram you’re yearly? Or when’s the last time you had a mammogram, that sort of thing. Something as simple as that, I found in my own social media activity a little bit, especially during breast cancer awareness month, people are eager to hear it.

Athena (15:50):

And people say, I made my appointment because I saw your post. So that may seem small, but it’s something that people can do. I also think staying informed about these issues, being willing to volunteer with an organization, if you’re interested in being even more hands-on, whatever way that you could, of course, with COVID, it makes things difficult, but you never know. And because this is an issue that will require community and systemic level change. I think that one thing that individuals can, can do, or we’ll keep an eye on is, you know, raise their voices about these disparities, be an advocate, be an ally, you know, join the walks to raise awareness, donate to the cause and also show leaders. And decision-makers that this, this matters to you, and this is something that needs attention.

Adam (16:31):

Right. And I think I would also suggest just having conversations about this is so important, and that’s why I’m so thankful that you came on the show to have a conversation with me. So Athena, thank you again so much for your time. It’s such a blessing and honor to talk.

Athena (16:44):

Yeah. Thanks so much, Adam. So glad I was able to be here with you. Thanks for inviting me.


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