While women of all races and ethnic backgrounds need to take steps to keep themselves healthy and prevent against cancer, a close look at cancer incidence and death statistics show that certain groups in the United States suffer disproportionately from certain types of cancer.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines this phenomenon as “cancer health disparities” and measures it by differences in the number of new cases diagnosed each year, the overall prevalence among certain populations, the total number of cancer deaths, differences in cancer survivorship rates, and burden of cancer or related health conditions that exist among different population groups.
One area of focus is breast cancer. Studies have shown that the death rate due to breast cancer in African-American women is 39 percent higher than in the general population of Caucasian women. Researchers have also discovered that aggressive breast tumors are more common in younger African-American and Hispanic/Latina women. This more aggressive form of breast cancer is less responsive to standard cancer treatments and is associated with higher death rates.
These cancer health disparities are also found in cervical cancer. Hispanic/Latina women have the highest cervical cancer incidence rate. Likewise, African-American women are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than Caucasian women in the general population, and African-American women have the highest death rate from cervical cancer.
What we do know is that six out of every 10 cervical cancers occur in women who have never received a Pap test in the past five years.
So what can be done to reduce these disparities? Education and screening are the keys to diagnosing cancer or precancerous conditions early when they are more treatable and, typically, have more favorable outcomes.
All women who are 40 and older (or women under 40 who have a family history, breast abnormality, or concern) should have a mammogram. Mammograms, combined with a clinical breast exam, are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat.
Similarly, women 21 and over should have an annual Pap smear. A Pap test, combined with a cervical exam, can find abnormal cells which may turn into cancer. Pap tests can also catch cervical cancer early, when the chance of being cured is very high.
Despite what is known about health disparities, by following these simple steps, women of all races and ethnic backgrounds can be proactive in their fight against cancer. Many low-cost screening options are available. Talk to your primary care doctor about specific concerns about your cancer risk.
Evelyn Robles-Rodriguez, RN, MSN, APN-C, AOCN
Director, Oncology Outreach Programs
MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper
Free breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer screenings are available for uninsured women. Make your appointment today by calling 856.968.7825 or visiting the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper Cancer Outreach, Education, and Screening Program website.