For many years, the United States has seen a large disparity between the number of cancer-related fatalities between African-Americans and Caucasians. It is a known fact that African-Americans have a higher mortality rate for colon cancer, as well as a lowered chance of survival when kidney disease requires dialysis. Even though the gap still exists and the cancer mortality rate among African Americans remains significantly higher than that of Caucasians, the first 10 years of the 21st century have found a significant lessening of this incongruence. Thanks to a new study, hope is being restored as America comes nearer to “Health Equity,” a term defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as the maximum level of health for all citizens.

The causes of this disparity vary and are often complicated, but the most common factor leading to higher mortality rate lies with disproportions in wealth. As many African-Americans within the United States still face low education and income, less than healthy living conditions, and reduced access to acceptable health care, it is no wonder cancer mortality rates are significantly higher. In 2010 alone, the total mortality of African-Americans due to cancer was one-fifth higher than that of Caucasians.  

This new study conducted by Clinical Professor of Health and Science Eileen O’Keefe along with her colleagues from Boston University College of Health and Rehabilitation shows that the past decade has brought some improvement with this staggering issue. Working from 2000 to 2010, researchers collected nationwide data from the “Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results” (SEER) program of the National Cancer Institute to measure how these numbers have changed. Publishing their work in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, they found that mortality rates in African-Americans are decreasing more quickly than that of Caucasians.

Specifically, O’Keefe and her colleagues discovered that the disparity in cancer mortality rates between African-Americans and Caucasians decreased by 14.6 percent (from 16.4 to 14 percent) in women and 31.1 percent (from 40.2 to 27.7 percent) in men in the past decade. Other promising statistics were found as well. For instance, in 2010, the total number of deaths related to cancer annually per 1,000 Americans was 1.7 among African-American women (a 16 percent decrease compared to 2000), 1.5 among Caucasian women (14 percent decrease), 2.6 among African-American men (29 percent decrease) and 2.1 among Caucasian men (18 percent decrease). In addition, the fastest decrease in cancer-related deaths for African-American men occurred with prostate cancer patients, down 43 percent in 2010 compared to 2000. This compares to Caucasian incidents of prostate cancer decreasing by 38 percent.

African-American women and Caucasian women found a decreased mortality rate in lung, breast, and colorectal cancer, declining from seven percent to 36 percent from 2000 to 2010. African-American men and Caucasian men alike also found a decreased mortality rate from lung, prostate and colorectal cancer, declining from 26 percent to 43 percent during the 2000-2010 period. The only cancer in which African-Americans had a lower mortality rate than Caucasians was discovered to be lung cancer, and this was only the case in women. Researchers believe that this is due to the lower rate of smokers among African-American women.

There can be many changes attributed to the positive outcome of these numbers, but the main factor seems to be the availability of quality health care. During the past 10 years, African-Americans have increasingly gained access to improved health care treatment and high quality surgeries, along with better education regarding prevention strategies. These strategies most often consist of assistance to quitting smoking, along with greater education on the importance of screening and testing, an essential factor in early diagnosis of cancer. African-Americans have also been less frequently prescribed hormone replacement therapy, a known risk factor for breast cancer in menopausal women, while also being increasingly prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs that lower the risk of colorectal cancer.

While these numbers and trends seem steps in the right direction, O’Keefe offers a word of caution. “Despite significant gains in overall cancer mortality over this time period, persistent cancer disparities by race exist,” O’Keefe said in a press release. “Policy solutions that address access to and quality of the health care system are certainly important toward narrowing disparities, but cannot fully redress broader societal inequities at the core of racial and ethnic health disparities.”

O’Keefe raises a very valid point; although the gap is narrowing, the fact that such a disparity exists is indicative of larger societal issues tied to race. With the availability of proper health care, there is no arguable reason why quality treatment should be sequestered to one group of people over another. Greater systemic problems must be addressed in order to bridge this gap completely, as societal equality will be ultimate determinant of health equity.

Source: O’Keefe E, Meltzer J, Bethea T, et al. Racial Disparities In Cancer Mortality in the United States, 2000-2010. Frontiers in Public Health. 2015.