African Americans and cancer disparities

disparities.fwWhile researchers have not been able to pinpoint a single cause for cancer, we know that several variables are involved. Our age, race, genetics, lifestyle and environment can influence our chances of developing it. Some of these variables such as race can cause differences or inequalities known as cancer disparities. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), African Americans have the highest cancer death rate of any racial group for all cancers combined. This is a huge disparity and one that is not experienced by other ethic groups to quite the extent it is in African-America individuals.

There is no clear data on why these disparities exist, but just like cancer causes, they are believed to be the result of a variety of factors. These may include

  • access to care
  • early detection/screening
  • education

Organizations like the DHHS are working to reduce these differences on a national level. Our Cancer Center’s Minority Outreach Initiative is working on this at a local level in the Southeast Michigan community.

Some of the cancers that are most common in African Americans include: female breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. Learning to be proactive by seeking health care rather than waiting for a problem to arise, knowing if you have a family history of cancer, and taking advantage of early screening/detection programs can help reduce cancer disparities. For those who need to become established with a health care provider, the American Board of Medical Specialties can provide the names of specialists in your area.

Screening is looking for cancer before symptoms appear. Lack of screening is believed to be one of the reasons for disparities in cancer care especially among African-Americans and minorities. Knowing your own risk factors and family history (if any) is important for cancer screening.

Let’s take a closer look at the screening for each of the cancers mentioned above:

  • Female breast: Experts recommend a screening mammography every year starting at age 40. The CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program provides free screening for breast cancer to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women across the United States.
  • Colorectal: Experts find that regular screening beginning at age 50 is important in detecting colorectal cancer early, when there is the greatest chance for a cure. There are several screening tests for colorectal cancer, so it is important to speak with your health care provider about what colorectal cancer screening option is best for you. The Michigan Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Program (phone 517-373-3740) is a free screening program offered through the Michigan Department of Community Health and is for those who are 50-64, low income, and uninsured or underinsured.
  • Prostate: Both the PSA, or prostate screening antigen blood test, and a digital rectal exam are suggested screening tests for prostate cancer. However these tests may not be appropriate for all men. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends that by age 40, men have a discussion with their doctor about the risks and benefits of prostate cancer screening.
  • Lung: Lung cancer screening is currently recommended only for “high risk” individuals. High risk is defined as anyone ages 55 through 80, who has a 30-year history of smoking at least one pack a day, or who has quit in the past 15 years. The screening is done through a low dose CT scan. The U-M Health System offers a dedicated Lung Cancer Screening Clinic.

Along with screening, community-based cancer education can help reduce these disparities. It is in fact one of the goals of many outreach programs, including ours. There may be cancer outreach programs in your community. You can find out by checking the events section of your local newspaper, or calling your local hospital or community center. If you are not sure where to start or want to speak to someone, our Cancer Answer Line is ready to assist at 1-800-865-1125 (Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. EST).

Take the next step:

  • Learn the cancer facts and figures for African Americans from the American Cancer Society
  • Read the prostate cancer screening guide (PDF) for African Americans by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

SusanDaron no captionThe Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.



Cancer center-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.