Cancer disparities in African Americans


Zainab Talha, Scoop Editor

The origin of the word “cancer” has been attributed to Greek physician, Hippocrates, also known as the “Father of Medicine”. Hippocrates used the terms “carcinos” and “carcinoma” to describe tumors which he thought resembled crabs. Although he was the first to use “cancer” to describe this disease, historical records reveal that cases of cancer have been existent from much earlier. The oldest documented case is from 1500 BC in Egypt which reports of a tumor being treated through cauterization. 

Today, scientists have a much greater understanding of the various causes, effects and inner workings of cancer. As different treatments continue to be explored and clinical trials run, research has revealed the disproportionality of how cancer affects various communities and people. These cancer disparities, defined as the inequities in cancer outcomes based on race, ethnicity, social status, geographic location and other populational characteristics, have complicated causes which are often difficult to understand. Any insight present, reflects the biological, cultural and socioeconomic factors which cause a difference in cancer outcome. 

Although the U.S. has made significant progress in the fight against cancer, research shows that the black community has been left behind in these efforts. A 2019 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that African Americans have the highest mortality rate out of any racial group for the most major cancers. 

Specific numerical data comes from a number of sources including the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Statistics Review of 1975-2018, which states that although black and white women are diagnosed with breast cancer at the same rate, black women are 40% more likely to die from the disease. Following the same trajectory, black men are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than white men are.

According to the 2020 cancer disparities progress report by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), education and income are the two biggest factors which play a role in the higher rate of cancer mortality in communities of color. In fact, the report states that eliminating socioeconomic disparities could prevent more than a third of cancer deaths in Americans between the ages of 25 and 74. 

Cancer treatment can be difficult to pay for, especially for individuals working jobs with an hourly wage. Additionally, the nature of such jobs often causes poor offerings of healthcare insurance, another factor which contributes to lower screenings and treatment options. This can potentially force people to have to choose between their income and health, a decision no one should have to make.

Gaps in clinical knowledge also play a role in the cancer disparities among African Americans. Clinical research trials predominantly feature white subjects, creating a gap of what researchers know and don’t know about the various aspects of cancer and its treatments in patients. A 2021 report in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled, “Participation of African American Persons Supporting Approval of Cancer Drugs” found that less than 8% of participants in research trials were African American despite having the same probability of getting cancer.

Neighborhood location is an additional contributor to these troubling disparities. People from low-income neighborhoods will be more likely to have greater air pollution and fewer resources to maintain good health, further contributing to the increased risk of getting cancer. 

These solvable issues are immensely problematic as they have solutions which need to be worked out.

As Dr. John Carpten, chair of the cancer research association’s Minorities in Cancer Research Council put in an NBC article titled, “Black Americans are still dying of cancer at the highest rates,” “Socioeconomic injustices and health care inequities are undoubtedly the root of and the foundation of the health disparities we see in the U.S., and we can’t ignore that…We can make a lot of progress in our understanding of how cancers manifest in different people, but without addressing those inequalities, these disparities will always exist.”