Cancer death gap narrows between Blacks and Whites

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Historically, cancer and cancer death rates have been higher for African Americans than for Whites. New research, however, shows that the disparity gap is starting to narrow.

According to research from the American Cancer Society (ACS), the overall cancer death rate is dropping faster in Blacks than in Whites, mostly in three cancer types: lung, colorectal, and prostate.

The “Cancer Statistics for African Americans, 2019,” report, along with its companion piece Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2019-2021, also shows the overall statistics on new cancer cases, deaths, survival, screening test use, and risk factors for African Americans.

From 2006 to 2015, the overall cancer death rate declined faster among Black men and women than White men and women in the U.S. Continuous declines for the past 25 years have meant more than 462,000 fewer cancer deaths. Among men, the overall cancer death rate was 47 percent higher for Blacks than for Whites in 1990 versus 19 percent higher in 2016.

Among women, the disparity decreased from 19 percent to 13 percent over the same period, with the gap nearly eliminated for some age groups.

“Seeing the substantial progress made over the past several decades in reducing Black-White disparities in cancer mortality is incredibly gratifying,” said Len Lichtenfeld, MD, interim chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, in a statement. “This progress is driven in large part by drops in the lung cancer death rate driven by more rapid decreases in smoking over the past 40 years in Blacks than in Whites. To continue this progress, we need to expand access to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment for all Americans.”

While the gaps are reducing, the report shows that African Americans in the U.S. still have the highest death rate and lowest survival rate of any racial or ethnic group for most cancers.

About 202,260 new cancer cases and 73,030 cancer deaths are expected among Blacks in the U.S. in 2019.

Much of the difference is because of lower socioeconomic status and less access to medical care. People with lower socioeconomic status face more barriers to high-quality health care, including lack of insurance.  For example, the study authors note that in 2017, the proportion of Blacks living below the federal poverty level (21 percent) was more than double that of Whites (9 percent), and 22 percent of Blacks had completed four years of college compared with 36 percent of Whites.

About 98,020 cancer cases in Black men and 104,240 cases in Black women are expected to be newly diagnosed in 2019. Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Black men, and breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed in Black women. Each makes up nearly one-third of cancers diagnosed in each gender.

 Lung and colorectal cancers are the second and third most commonly diagnosed cancers in both Black men and women. Together, the four most common cancers breast, prostate, colorectal, and lung account for 54 percent of all cancer cases among Blacks.

Gap differs among age groups

The progress is even more striking in some age groups. Among men ages 40-49, the cancer death rate during 1990-1991 was 102 percent higher in Blacks than in Whites. But it was only 17 percent higher during 2015-2016. Among women ages 40-49, the gap narrowed from 44 percent to 30 percent.

Among Black women ages 80-89, the death rate was eight percent higher than among White women during 2002-2003, but three percent lower during 2015-2016.

Additional findings: In Black men, rates of new cancer cases overall from 2006 to 2015 decreased by 2.4 percent per year compared with 1.7 percent per year for White men.

In Black women, rates of new cancer cases overall from 2006 to 2015 remained unchanged compared with a slight increase in White women. This is because rates for breast, endometrial, and pancreatic cancer went up while rates for lung and colorectal cancer went down.

—Information provided by American Cancer Society