Asian Americans and cancer

asian healthCancer doesn’t affect all ethnic groups the same. Certain types of cancer are more common in some groups than others. Liver and stomach cancer occur at higher rates within the Asian American community. Studies have also shown that Asian Americans have lower rates of cancer screening compared to other groups in the United States. Within the Asian American community, Korean Americans are the least likely to undergo screenings for colon, cervical and breast cancer. The following are some facts about Asian Americans and cancer:

  • Cancer is the leading cause of death for female Asian Americans
  • Cervical cancer is a significant health problem for Korean American and Vietnamese American women
  • Breast cancer in Japanese American women is approaching that of U.S. whites
  • Liver cancer in Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese populations is 1.7 to 11.3 times higher than rates among white Americans
  • Lung cancer rates are 18% higher among Southeast Asians than white Americans
  • Japanese have the highest incidence rates for colorectal, female breast cancer and uterine cancer among all Asian subgroups
  • Korean men experience the highest rate of stomach cancer of all racial/ethnic groups, and a five-fold increased rate of stomach cancer over white American men

Many Asian Americans skip cancer screening. They believe that if they feel well and have no symptoms of disease, that screening is not necessary. Screening can detect cancer before symptoms occur, and in the early stages, before it has spread, when there is the best hope for a cure.

Screening recommendations by cancer type:

  • Colon: Age 50 – colonoscopy
  • Breast: Age 40 – annual mammogram and clinical breast exam
  • Lung: Age 30 or older with history of heavy smoking – consider screening
  • Cervical: Age 21-65 – Pap test every two or three years
  • Prostate: Age 50 – discuss screening with your doctor

Overall Asian Americans have lower cancer rates than white Americans; however, disparities still exist.  Asian Americans are three times more likely to develop liver cancer, and twice as likely to die from stomach cancer.

Liver cancer

Although primary liver cancer is not common in the United States, it is much more prevalent in other countries, especially Southeast  Asia. Hepatitis B is the primary risk factor for liver cancer.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 1 in 12 Asian Americans is living with hepatitis B, but 2 in 3 of these individuals do not know they are infected. Although Asian Americans make up less than 5% of the population, they account for over 50% of the Hepatitis B cases in the United States.

Those at high risk should be tested:

  • Born in Asia or the Pacific Islands
  • Born in the U.S., but not vaccinated at birth, and have one parent born in East or Southeast Asia or the Pacific Islands

Talk to your health care provider about getting the hepatitis B vaccine. Hepatitis B incidence has decreased by 82% since 1990 in the U.S. due to vaccination in children.

Stomach cancer

Worldwide, stomach cancer is more common in Japan, China and South Central Asia. In the U.S. stomach cancer is more common in Asians than in whites. A diet that contains smoked foods, salted fish and pickled vegetables has shown to increase the risk of stomach cancer. Avoiding these foods and eating fresh fruits and vegetables can decrease your risk. Although screening for stomach cancer is not routinely done in the United States, Asian Americans concerned about their risk should discuss screening with their doctor.

If you have further questions about cancer, the nurses at the Cancer AnswerLine™ are here to help.  Please call 1-800-865-1125.


National Cancer Institute

American Cancer Society

Asian American Health Initiative




The Cancer AnswerLine™ is a dedicated phone line at the Comprehensive Cancer Center that is staffed by oncology nurses five days a week, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. at 800-865-1125. They have a combined 105 years of experience helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer.


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