Currently, we are all rightly focused on preventing the further spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, not even a pandemic stops cancer, so we must simultaneously continue our work to prevent these diseases.
As a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program, I want to highlight April as National Minority Health Month. Cancer affects us all, but it doesn’t affect us all equally. People of color in the U.S. are disproportionately affected by cancer.
African Americans have the highest death rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers. African American men have the highest overall incidence rate; they are twice as likely as white men to die from prostate cancer. While African American women are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than white women, they are more likely to die from it. The good news is lung, colorectal and prostate cancer rates have dropped faster in African Americans than in white Americans in recent decades, narrowing the gap in death rates.
Although Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaska Natives are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer overall, they have higher rates for certain types of cancer, including stomach and liver cancers. Cervical cancer, which is highly preventable with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, is more common among Hispanic, African American, American Indian and Alaska Native women than white women. American Indian and Alaska Natives have high rates of colorectal cancer, especially among men.
This is not a simple issue. A combination of factors contributes to these health disparities. Minorities in the U.S. are more likely to live in poverty and lack access to quality health care than white Americans. Because of this, they are less likely to get recommended screenings and are often diagnosed with cancer at later stages, when it’s more difficult to treat.
Lifestyle behaviors also add to health disparities. Those with limited financial or medical resources may be more likely to use tobacco products, have poor diets, be physically inactive or obese and drink alcohol in excess—all risk factors for certain cancers.
Biological factors make several cancers more common or severe among certain groups, including triple-negative breast cancer (which is harder to treat) in African American women, prostate cancer in African American men, and colorectal cancer in both African American men and women. Unfortunately, clinical trial participation among minorities is low, which means treatments may not account for biological differences among racial groups.
If you are at higher risk for certain cancers because of your race, ethnicity, or other factor such as family history, talk to your health care professional to decide if you should get screened earlier or more often. Screening for breast, colorectal, cervical and lung cancers can help find cancer earlier, when successful treatment is more likely. The decision whether to be screened for prostate cancer with the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test should be made after a discussion with your health care professional, but African American men should begin this conversation at an earlier age—beginning at age 45.
Practice cancer prevention in your daily life by eating a healthy diet, exercising, wearing sunscreen, not smoking, and limiting alcohol. Learn more at www.preventcancer.org.
Nicole Beus Harris is the spouse of Representative Andy Harris, M.D. Statistics provided by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.