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Why cancer kills more African Americans

Lavenia Stewart | 12/19/2012, 5 p.m.

Despite decreasing cancer deaths, cancer still kills more African American women than White women. And prostate cancer affects twice as many African American men as White men. These are among the facts presented recently by panel of experts at a Zócalo Public Square event titled, "Why is Cancer Killing More African Americans?"

Death rates from all cancers combined decreased from 1999 to 2008, among most racial and ethnic groups, according to the 2012 Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. While more White women are diagnosed with cancer, they have a higher survival rate than Black women. The panel of experts met to discuss the underlying causes of these disparities and what can be done to improve the number of Black cancer survivors.

"Tell me your ZIP code, and I can tell you your life expectancy, someone once told me," said Daniel Weintraub, a public health policy reporter and editor of HealthyCal.org, an organization that informs Californians about public and community health issues.

Weintraub added that while White women are more likely to get breast cancer, African Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from it and less likely to be diagnosed early. Weintraub goes on to note that, in fact, for all cancers in California African Americans have both the highest incidence and the highest mortality rates.

However, researchers say there is not a single factor they can point a finger at and say, "there, that's the reason for disparities." They do know that disparities are linked to "social, behavioral, and economic factors such as persistent inequalities in access to care, language barriers, unhealthy environments, and racial discrimination," as stated in Cancer Disparities: A Chartbook from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network" that addresses disparities through legislation. The consequences of these disparities lead to late diagnosis and reduced survival rates.

Leticia Marquez-Magana, Ph.D., a biologist at the Health Equity Institute for Research, Practice, and Policy at San Francisco State University, said: "African Americans die the most from 12 of the 13 cancers. I think what often gets in the way of our care is having to start the conversation with someone new every time we visit the doctor. Or even if you're seeing your own doctor, they don't remember what you discussed during your last visit.

"Our current medical model isn't working. We're spending more money on healthcare and our outcomes are worse than countries that spend less. I recently returned from Cuba and there every neighborhood, of roughly 1,500 residents, has a clinic and its doctor lives in that neighborhood. The doctors get to know their patients. They may say, 'your daughter hasn't come in for her pap smear. Let's go talk to her about coming in.'"

Marquez-Magana continued: "We need a bigger healthcare workforce, but right now the medical college admissions test is eliminating candidates, especially minorities, who are sorely needed to study and eliminate these cancer disparities. We need to train them to become the researchers of the future, because African American oncologists only make up 2 percent of the profession. If more enter this field, no doubt, this will increase the number serving in their communities," said Marquez-Magana.