Minority Populations Continue to Face Cancer Health Disparities

April 3, 2017
In The News

Let’s start with the good news: the overall cancer death rate in the United States has been declining over the past two decades, thanks to lower rates of smoking, earlier detection and better treatments. The bad news: cancer health disparities continue to exist.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health disparities as preventable differences in the burden of disease experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. These populations are often racial or ethnic minorities. April is National Minority Health Awareness Month and from April 11 through 17, we observe Minority Cancer Awareness Week, to call attention to these disparities and ways to overcome them.

Cancer affects everyone, but African-Americans are particularly burdened by these diseases. Black males are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of cancer—prostate cancer, in particular—than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Black females are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than white women, but they are more likely to die from it.

Cervical cancer rates for Hispanic women are 40 percent higher than white Americans, despite the availability of the highly effective human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (HPV causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancers). Hispanics and Asian-Americans have about double the rate of liver and stomach cancers as white Americans. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest kidney cancer rates of any ethnic group and high rates of lung and colorectal cancer.

Although genetic predisposition accounts for some differences in cancer rates, socioeconomic status, access to care, cultural dynamics and lifestyle behaviors play a significant part in advancing these disparities. Those with a low socioeconomic status are less likely to get screened for cancer because they often lack health insurance, sick leave or education about preventive measures. Minorities are less likely to have health insurance, and therefore, less likely to make regular visits to a health care professional. They may also live in underserved areas without nearby health care facilities or reliable transportation to reach one. Discrimination and language barriers can create obstacles that may delay diagnosis and treatment that could be more effective if started early.

Lifestyle behaviors, including unhealthy diets, smoking, drinking alcohol in excess and physical inactivity increase some groups’ risk of cancer. About four out of every five African-American women are obese or overweight. Obesity has been linked to breast cancer—the most common cancer in black women, with a death rate 42 percent higher than that of white women. The high rate of kidney cancer in American Indian and Alaska Natives is likely due to the prevalence of smoking, obesity and hypertension in these communities. Overall, Hispanics are less likely to drink alcohol or smoke than white Americans, which may help explain their lower cancer rates for lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. But descendants of Hispanic immigrants, and even first-generation immigrants who have spent many years in the U.S., have cancer rates more similar to those of white Americans because they are more likely to adopt negative habits of American culture (such as smoking and unhealthy eating) that increase their risk.

We need to do more to close the gaps in cancer prevention and care for all Americans by improving health literacy and access to care, particularly in rural areas and places with high minority populations, encouraging healthy lifestyles beginning at an early age and supporting medical research. To learn more, visit www.preventcancer.org.