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Get the Facts: Race and Cancer Risk

Focused on Health - April 2009

By Adelina Espat

Do race and ethnicity affect cancer risk? This is the question frequently asked throughout the year and especially during National Minority Cancer Awareness Week in April. Each year, cancer statistics continue to show that minority groups are more likely than the general population to develop and/or die from certain types of cancer.

As U.S. minority populations continue to grow, the question about the relationship between race and cancer becomes more important. According to recent Census Bureau figures, minorities make up about one-third of the U.S. population and are expected to become the majority in 2042. Hispanic, black, Asian and other nonwhite men and women already make up half the population of the country's largest cities. Many small towns also are seeing similar changes in their communities.

Minorities and Cancer Risk
Below are cancer trends among some of the larger minority groups in the U.S. Additional information on the relationship between cancer and minority groups can be found in the links below each section.

African Americans
African Americans are more likely to develop and die from cancer than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the American Cancer Society.

  • African American males are 37% more likely to die from cancer than white males.
  • African American females are 17% more likely to die from cancer than white females.
  • African American men and women are more likely than the general population to get and die from colorectal and lung cancers.

The African American population is expected to increase from 14% of the population in 2008 to 15% in 2050.

More African American statistics
African American health

American Indian/Alaska Native
American Indians/Alaska Natives are more likely to develop and die from kidney cancer than other racial/ethnic groups. (Cancer trends for this group should be viewed with caution because current figures do not represent the entire population.)

By 2050, the American Indian and Alaska Native population will rise from 1.6% to 2% of the total population.

More American Indian/Alaska Native statistics
Native American health

Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders
Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders are more likely to develop both liver and stomach cancers. This group also is more likely to die from these cancers, other than African Americans who are more likely to die from stomach cancer.

The Asian population will comprise 9% of the total population or 40.6 million by 2050.

More Asian American statistics
More Pacific Islander statistics
Asian American health

Hispanics are more likely to develop most cancers related to infection with certain viruses. For example, Hispanic women have the second highest number of cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer is related to human papillomavirus. Liver cancer cases are twice as high in Hispanic men and women as in non-Hispanic whites. Liver cancer is related to the hepatitis virus.

Between 2008 and 2050, the Hispanic population is projected to grow, from 46.7 million to 132.8 million. By 2050, almost one in three U.S. residents will be Hispanic.

More Hispanic/Latino statistics
Hispanic health

Participate and Reduce the Rates
More information is needed to fully understand the factors that affect cancer rates among minority populations. Factors that may contribute to health disparities include:

  • Lack of or inadequate insurance coverage
  • Lack of coverage from insurance providers to pay for related study costs
  • Barriers to early detection and screening, such as lack of knowledge of screening tests
  • Language and cultural barriers
  • Unequal access to improved cancer treatments

Before additional information can be obtained, it is critical that members of minority populations participate in research studies to help scientists learn more about the health needs of these populations as well as how to better address these needs. Without minority participation in research studies, it becomes difficult to determine whether or not study results are applicable to all populations.

Unfortunately, minority groups are less likely than the white population to participate in research studies. Factors contributing to low participation rates may include:

  • Insufficient discussions between physicians and their minority patients on the availability of studies
  • Lack of information in the community about the potential benefits of participating in research studies 
  • Insufficient studies in communities where people affected by disparities often live
  • Exclusion of patients with multiple health problems, many of whom are minorities, from research studies based on extensive eligibility criteria

 Fortunately, minorities can take an active role in their health management to reduce their risks for cancer, in addition to research study participation. Up to two-thirds of all cancer cases could be prevented if people adopted healthier lifestyle habits, such as healthy eating, increased exercise, sun protection and tobacco cessation, according to the American Cancer Society.

Observing National Minority Cancer Awareness Week
National Minority Cancer Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to draw attention to issues unique to minority communities. This year, the week was observed during April 19 – 25, giving physicians, nurses, health care professionals and researchers an opportunity to develop creative approaches to remove barriers to healthcare for these populations.

Contact M. D. Anderson’s Public Education Office at 713-792-3363 for more information.

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