Despite falling numbers, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of death among women in the United States, second only to lung cancer. Still, even with 2.8 million breast cancer survivors and almost 41,000 women predicted to die from the condition this year, new research shows that the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not fully understand their condition.

In a new study published in the journal Cancer, researchers found that many women with breast cancer in the U.S. do not understand their diagnosis, with the disparity being most pronounced among minority women.

For the study, researchers surveyed 500 women with breast cancer, asking each of them questions about the grade, stage and receptor status (the cancer subtype) of their diagnosis. They found that while the majority of women thought they understood their diagnosis, only 20-58 percent were able to correctly answer the questions. Black and Hispanic women were less likely than white women to understand the particular risks of their cancers, even after researchers took into account factors such as socioeconomic status. Health literacy was one factor that explained some of the lack of understanding for Hispanic women but it did not change the the findings for black women.

What this means is that many women — particularly minority women — are attempting to make decisions about their treatment and care without fully understanding what they face. Lead researcher Rachel Freedman, a physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, noted that this study identified a "critical need for improved patient education and provider awareness of this issue." In other words, health care providers need to do a better job of explaining the ins and out of breast cancer to women who are diagnosed with the condition. Women who don't understand the prognosis are more likely skip treatment if they don't see it as necessary and/or make uninformed decisions about the type of treatment that would be best for their situation.

Bottom line: If you're facing a breast cancer diagnosis, ask questions — lots of them. You aren't the first women to feel confused about all of the medical particulars involved in understanding your diagnosis and you won't be the last. But what is important is that you keep asking questions until you get the answers you need to understand your situation and make the best decisions possible regarding your care.

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