April is National Minority Health Month. As a member of the bipartisan Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation ® , I want to share the following information to highlight why chronic diseases, including cancer, are often more common or life-threatening among minorities.
We’ve made remarkable progress in the fight against cancer. Recent research shows that some of this progress is among minorities in particular—the overall cancer death rate is declining faster among African American men and women than their white counterparts, mostly for lung, colorectal and prostate cancers. That’s promising news for a group that bears the brunt of the cancer burden.
Yet, African Americans still have the highest death rates of nearly all types of cancer, with lung cancer being the leading cause of cancer death in this population. The good news is that smoking is on the decline among young African Americans—if this trend continues, the lung cancer disparity may one day be eliminated.
Prostate cancer rates still remain high among African American men, especially compared to
white men. African American women are much more likely to die of breast cancer than white
American women. They are twice as likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast
cancer—which is harder to treat—than other racial or ethnic groups.
Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaska Natives aren’t as
likely to be diagnosed with cancer, but have higher rates for certain types of cancer, including
stomach and liver cancers. Cervical cancer also disproportionately affects Hispanic, African
American, American Indian and Alaska Native women—even though most cases could be
prevented with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and regular screening.
Health disparities often exist because not everyone has the same access to care. Minorities in the U.S. are more likely to live in poverty than white Americans. With limited financial resources and/or lack of health insurance, people (regardless of race) are less likely to visit the doctor regularly or get recommended screenings, and cancer may not be found until it’s more advanced and harder to treat. Many don’t have reliable transportation to get to medical
appointments or aren’t able to take time off work. Those of lower socioeconomic status are also more likely to be obese, smoke, drink alcohol in excess and lack access to healthy foods—all factors that can contribute to cancer risk.
We have a long way to go to overcome these inequalities. Clinical trial enrollment doesn’t reflect the diversity of the country, so many cancer treatments don’t account for biological differences among races and ethnicities. Patient navigators can help underserved populations maneuver the health care system, from arranging medical appointments to understanding diagnoses, and community programs can instill healthy lifestyle behaviors at an early age. Unfortunately, these resources don’t always reach those who need them most.
What can you do? Donate healthy food to your local food bank, offer a neighbor, friend or family member a ride to the doctor, or see if your local hospital has a volunteer nurse navigator program. Many cancers are preventable and all Americans deserve an equal shot at living long, healthy lives. To learn more about cancer prevention, visit 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.