Despite progress in cancer prevention, screening and treatment leading to declining cancer rates in the U.S., not every American benefits equally. As a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program®, I want to highlight cancer disparities faced by many across the country as we observe National Minority Health Month.
Cancer disparities are differences in cancer measurements, including number of new cases, total cases, screening and survival rates, stage of diagnosis, and deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute. Disparities can be experienced by race/ethnicity, disability, geographic location, income, education, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Black Americans are particularly burdened by cancer. This group has the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial/ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers. Although Black women in the U.S. are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, they are 40% more likely to die of the disease than white women. Prostate cancer rates have declined overall in the U.S., but not among Black men, who are twice as likely as white men to die of the disease and have the highest prostate cancer mortality among all U.S. population groups.
Certain preventable cancers impact minorities more than others. Hispanic/Latino and Black American women have higher rates of cervical cancer than other racial/ethnic groups, and Black women have the highest death rate for the disease. Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaska Natives have higher rates of liver cancer. Both liver and cervical cancers may be prevented with vaccination against the viruses that causes most of these cancer cases, and cervical cancer can also be detected early with screening.
It’s not just race or ethnicity that affects cancer risk. People who live in rural areas - regardless of race - have much higher rates of lung, colorectal and cervical cancers. There are effective screening options for each of these cancers.
Most minority groups are at increased risk of being diagnosed or dying from cancer because of social, economic and environmental disadvantages, or “social determinants of health.” Social determinants of health are the conditions in the places you live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. For example, if you don’t have a job that provides health insurance or paid medical leave, you are less likely to visit a health care provider regularly, and cancer or other health conditions may go undiagnosed or be diagnosed at later stages, when treatment may not be as successful. If you don’t live near a grocery store with fresh, healthy food (or cannot afford it), you’re less likely to eat a healthy diet.
We have a long way to go to address social determinants of health and improve cancer disparities. We can help close the gap by improving health literacy and access to care, encouraging healthy lifestyles beginning at an early age, and supporting medical research and clinical trials that address the needs of minorities and rural communities. To learn more, visit www.preventcancer.org.
Nicole Beus Harris is the spouse of Representative Andy Harris, M.D. and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.