couple with doctor

The rate of cancer and related mortality has decreased among African-Americans compared to White Americans, but the existence of the gap highlights the need to continue addressing healthcare disparities across ethnicities, according to an American Cancer Society study published in February.  

The study found a greater decrease in overall cancer death rate among African-Americans between 1990 and 2016 than White Americans due to steep declines in lung, colorectal and prostate cancers within the African-American community. In 1990, the rate of risk of overall cancer death for African-American men was 47 percent higher than white men. By 2016, that number had dropped to 19 percent. For African-American women, their risk of cancer related death rate dropped from 19 percent higher to 13 percent higher during that same time period.

Mark E. Reeves, MD, PhD, Loma Linda University Cancer Center director, says it’s encouraging to hear that the gap has somewhat narrowed.

“It is great that cancer death rates are decreasing faster in African-American people than the cancer death rates for the general population,” Reeves says. “The Loma Linda University Cancer Center aims to make sure all people, regardless of race, have access to whole person care.”

Reeves says the regional drop in cancer deaths can be partly attributed to lung, prostate, and colorectal cancer screening. The LLU Cancer Center’s Transdisciplinary Tobacco Research Program works to reduce the rates of lung and other cancers from cigarette smoking.  In addition, the Cancer Center pushes for both early prostate and colorectal cancer screenings.

Urology specialist Herbert Ruckle, MD, chair of Loma Linda University Health’s Urology Departmentechoes the need for early prostate screening because of higher rates of prostate cancer among African-American men.

“African-American ancestry places those particular men in a high-risk group,” Ruckle says. “Prostate cancer in African-American men has been found to be more aggressive and have a higher death rate compared to White Americans.”

Ruckle says though it is somewhat controversial, most prostate cancer specialists feel that the best practice is shared decision making discussing the possible benefits and harms with regards to screening and that the recommended age to start screening for prostate cancer in African-American men is age 40 compared to White men at age 55.

Although both physicians say they are grateful for the advances in medicine and continued awareness, Reeves says that this gap in cancer death rate is unacceptable.

“The fact that the cancer death rate for African-American men and women is still 19 percent and 13 percent higher, respectively, compared to the general population, it is still far too high,” Reeves says. “We have a lot more work to do in continuing to lower this disparity in cancer death rate for African-Americans.”

The Loma Linda University Cancer Center is a comprehensive center that focuses on whole person care and prevention. If you or someone you know would like more information about how you can participate in early cancer screenings or speak with physicians about any of your concerns, please visit the website or call  1-800-782-2623.