Cancer disparities exist because disparities in culture, access to medical care, environmental conditions, and genetic histories exist. Cultural indicators such as diet, religion, and widespread use of tobacco and alcohol put certain ethnic groups at higher risk of developing cancer than others, and socioeconomic status directly affects cancer mortality rates in other groups.
One extremely unfortunate example of a highly preventable cancer disparity is the well documented “substantially higher rates of prostate cancer incidence and death among African American men than men of other racial/ethnic groups” (National Cancer Institute, 2021)
This disparity can perhaps be attributed to a culturally informed toxic masculinity, which, unfortunately, results in a disproportionate number of deaths from a cancer that has a documented survival rate of 98% if it is detected early enough.
Another cancer that is highly survivable with early detection is cervical cancer, yet Hispanic and African American women suffer from higher rates of cervical cancer incidence and death than women of other racial/ethnic groups.
THE NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE (NCI) ALSO NOTES THAT THERE ARE SEVERAL OTHER WELL DOCUMENTED CANCER DISPARITIES, INCLUDING:
• A higher incidence of a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer (the triple-negative subtype) among African American women than women of other racial/ethnic groups
• Higher rates of kidney cancer among American Indian and Alaska Natives than other racial/ethnic groups
• Higher rates of liver cancer among Asian and Pacific Islanders than other racial/ethnic groups
The elephant in the room here is, of course, that every cancer disparity documented appears to affect non-white populations negatively. Perhaps this is because white Americans are normally used as the control group in these studies, or perhaps it’s due to a higher level of prevention, awareness, and care amongst that population. Indeed, “many of the same population groups that experience cancer health disparities are also significantly underrepresented in cancer clinical trials.” (NCI, 2021)
William G. Cance, MD, Chief Medical and Scientific Officer, American Cancer Society spoke to the need to rectify these disparities so that we can better understand this deadly scourge:
“While recent advances in treatment for lung cancer and several other cancers are reason to celebrate, it is concerning to see the persistent racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities for highly preventable cancers.
“There is a continued need for increased investment in equitable cancer control interventions and clinical research to create more advanced treatment options to help accelerate progress in the fight against cancer.” (ASC, 2021)
Progress is being made though, as highlighted by the NCI:
“There has been some recent evidence of progress against cancer health disparities, including reductions in lung and prostate cancer deaths among African American men over the past decade. But researchers and public health officials agree that progress has come too slowly, and the cost of disparities—in terms of premature deaths, lost productivity, and the impact on communities—remains substantial and must be addressed.”