New research from the University of Colorado Cancer Center finds black and Hispanic people aged 15 to 29 are at significantly greater risk of developing liver cancer than white people of the same age. And if that wasn't scary enough, researchers can't explain why.

“As with many disparities, you have to identify the problem before you can fix it,” said lead study author Meryl Colton, a medical student at UC Health, in a press release. She and pediatric oncologist Dr. Adam L. Green, an investigator at the CU Cancer Center, used data from the National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results' database to analyze and compare death rates between black, Hispanic, and white patients. They also looked for differences in patients who had one of three types of insurance: Medicaid, private insurance, or no insurance at all.

Just two years after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Colton and Green found that a white patient's chance of dying from the disease was a baseline of 1 and a black and Hispanic's chances were 1.77 and 1.76, respectively. Put it another way: black and Hispanic young adults are almost 75 percent more likely to die from liver cancer than their white counterparts. The racial disparity was present for other types of cancer, including soft tissue sarcomas, lymphomas, leukemia, and germ cell tumors. Patients who did not have private health insurance faced greater risk of mortality, too.

This can partially be explained by money, or lack thereof: While low socioeconomic status can adversely affect health across all races and ethnicities, it's a pronounced problem among minority groups. One survey suggests blacks and Hispanics are twice as likely to live in poverty as whites, and more than half of all minorities don't have a doctor. But even after Colton and Green controlled for this risk factor, the difference in death rates remained. This suggests race and ethnicity affect death rates independent of a patient's financial status.

More research is needed to pinpoint the underlying mechanisms of this disparity, but in the meantime, Colton speculates it has to do with genetically distinct forms of cancer that are more dangerous and difficult to treat. There's also the idea that the healthcare system fails to treat different racial and ethnic groups as effectively as it does whites, from doctors' bedside manner to the access minorities have to both affordable health insurance and comprehensive health education.

What researchers have now is a starting point to better understand why racial groups face higher rates of certain cancers. They know it exists, so the next step is to figure out why this is happening, Colton said.

She concluded: “This is population that shouldn’t be getting cancer and it’s devastating when they do. Knowing that a disparity exists allows us to ask questions that can help ensure everyone receives the best possible care.”

Source: Colton M, Green A. Hispanic and Black Young Adult Cancer Patients More Likely to Die of Their Disease. American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting. 2016.