Breast cancer scares the heck out of women - and the men who love them.

Research has done much to identify its causes and to treat it, but as long as women are dying as a result of the disease, more work is needed.

Cancer of the breast is the most common cancer among American women. (Men can get it, too, but that's rare.) Screening - routine breast exams and mammography - can detect it at an early, treatable stage. That's why the death rate for breast cancer has not increased with its incidence rate.

But the statistics for black women are scary. According to the National Cancer Institute, African American women in their 40s have a higher incidence of breast cancer than white women, and black women diagnosed with the disease are more likely to die from it.

Why the discrepancy? Breast cancer is being diagnosed at later stages in black women because they are not showing up for mammograms early and often enough. Part of the reason for their delay is a "what I don't know can't hurt me" mentality.

Black women's limited access to health care and differences in lifestyle - diet, exercise, and alcohol and tobacco use - are also factors that must be addressed.

The roles of genetics and environment are being studied further. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences needs 50,000 women to participate in the Sister Study, a long-term study of women, ages 35 to 74, who had a sister with breast cancer. The national study is designed to learn how environment and genes affect the chances of getting breast cancer. More information is available at the study's Web site,

» READ MORE: www.sisterstudy.org

Particularly needed for the study are African Americans, Latinas and other minorities. Their participation will ensure that the results will apply to all women.

Women need to be armed with all the information available to fight this disease. In this season of giving, they should give themselves the greatest gift of all - the gift of life. If you're a sister, and especially if you're a

sistah,

sign up for the Sister Study - and make an appointment for a mammogram.