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Cancer death rates are dropping, but not for everyone

Experts say there is a lack of diversity in patients in medical research, meaning understanding specifics within certain groups is limited.
A radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms
Posted at 8:22 PM, May 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-15 20:22:38-04

A new report out from the American Association for Cancer Research highlights the overall cancer death rate in the United State dropped by 33 percent between 1991 and 2020. Unfortunately, a number of health disparities remain, such as: 

  • Black men are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer compared to white men. 
  • Black individuals are twice as likely to be diagnosed with and die from multiple myeloma.
  • American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific islander, and Hispanic people are more likely to die from stomach cancer and liver cancers compared to white people. 
  • American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic people have higher case and death rates for liver cancer than white people. 
  • Black women are two times more likely than white women to be diagnosed highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer and 30 percent more likely to die from it.
  • People in rural counties are 38 percent more likely to be diagnosed with and die from lung cancer than those in urban ones.  

"Certain racial and ethnic groups, for example, African American or Black and Hispanic or Latinx populations seem to be experiencing more rapid increases in early onset colorectal cancer,” Dr. Scarlett Lin Gomez, epidemiologist and cancer researcher said. “Asian American women also seem to be experiencing more rapid increases in early onset breast cancer,” 
Phuong Ho, a 44-year-old mother from California represents another health inequity. 

“I never thought I would be the one to have lung cancer. I've never smoked. [I have] a very healthy lifestyle, I would say, and no underling medical problems. And to find out that I had a mass on my lungs, it was very surprising,” she told Scripps News. 

Lin Gomez is an epidemiologist and cancer researcher who works on a study called FANS (Female Asian Never Smoker) note several factors play into cancer disparities in racial and ethnic minority groups and medically underserved populations.

Phuong Ho represents a growing group of patients. Asian American women, who have never smoked but are diagnosed with lung cancer. Cancer researchers have found an estimated 57% of Asian American women diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked, compared to about 15% of all other women.

"We actually see this disease manifest and present in women Asian American females who are quite young,” Dr. Lin Gomez said. 

As for why — the report says social determinants of health contribute to inequities. They are non-medical factors that are beyond the control of the individual. One's environment, education level, housing, or transportation play a role too. That can impact access to healthy food, clean air, water and health care the report says. 

Experts say a lack of diversity in patients in medical research, meaning understanding specifics within a certain group is limited.

“Native American Indian, Alaska Native comprise hundreds of tribes and that information is never captured, " Dr. Lin Gomez said.

And racism also factors in. For example, 18 percent of Black adults reported being treated unfairly or with disrespect by a health care provider due to their racial or ethnic background, according to the report. 

Percentage of adults reported to have been treated unfairly or with disrespect by health care provider due to racial or ethnic background
Percentage of adults reported to have been treated unfairly or with disrespect by health care provider due to racial or ethnic background

As for Phuong Ho, she's had surgery and is three years cancer free. In her work, as an emergency room doctor, she says her experience has added to her empathy patients experience. 

She’s also participating in research that could help lead to treatments, and help others like her.

update stat to match a more compelling visual from the report [TL1]