April is National Minority Health Month

Cancer’s Burden Can Be Heaviest Among the Poor, Ethnic Minorities and the Uninsured

April 6, 2011 | Heather Burchfield

While one in three Americans will develop some form of cancer according to the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, it is the number one cause of death for many racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S.  Health disparities have been defined by the differences in health conditions among specific populations, and many times cancer’s burden is heaviest among the poor, ethnic minorities and the uninsured.

Cancer has hit the African American population particularly hard. The American Cancer Society noted that cancer death rates for African American men were about 37 percent higher than those for white men. African American women have a lower cancer diagnosis rate than white women, but they are about 17 percent more likely to die from it. Research has indicated that African Americans do not participate in clinical trials as often as non-Hispanic whites due to mistrust or poor communication.

Debbie Wujcik, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s director of clinical trial training and outreach, noted that lack of health care access is linked to health disparities, which may lead to a cancer diagnosis at a late stage in the disease process. She also pointed out that cultural beliefs and fear of the medical system can cause someone to delay seeking care even if they have insurance.

African Americans are not the only group with a high rate of cancer fatalities. The Office of Minority Health reports that cancer is the number one killer for Asians and Pacific Islanders. Hispanics have a higher rate of uterine, cervical, liver and stomach cancer. Native Americans are twice as likely to suffer from stomach and/or liver cancer.

Many social factors come into play when health disparities are discussed. Differences in income and education, racial bias and environmental deterrents are some of those variables.

“The risk of certain cancers is related to health behaviors such as obesity, smoking or sedentary behavior,” Wujcik said.  “These behaviors are more prevalent in some minority groups.”

While it is important for you to be aware of your cancer risk, it is also important for you health care provider to be aware of and address the many factors that contribute to disparities. Wujcik said one example would be chemotherapy and targeted drugs.

“It is not known if chemotherapy and targeted drugs work the same across all populations because the drugs are not tested in significant numbers across all minority/ethnic populations. Extra effort to include all representative groups in clinical trials is one important step in our effort to address those questions,” Wujcik noted. “All health care providers can discuss with their patients the risk factors for the development of cancer and the importance of prevention and early detection.”

Regular cancer screenings and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are key ways to help reduce your cancer risk or improve your chances of beating cancer if you are diagnosed.  Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s associate director of Patient and Community Education, Anne Washburn, said that the Cancer Center recommends minorities make informed decisions about their potential cancer risk by accessing educational materials and talking with their health care team.

“The Cancer Center disseminates free educational materials about cancer risk via the Patient and Family Resource Center,” Washburn noted. “In addition, the VICC Office of Patient and Community Education hosts numerous community education programs and health fairs throughout the year.”

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