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What causes cancer disparities?

Systemic and historical inequities in the U.S. lead to worst outcomes when it comes to cancer

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Cancer is often thought of as a great equalizer; an illness that impacts everyone either as a patient or loved one of someone who receives a diagnosis. But the reality is that cancer rates and access to preventive care are far from universal. Inequalities that persist across society are just as present in cancer diagnoses and outcomes. To combat these disparities, the American Cancer Society is supporting research and programming to ultimately close the gaps in cancer care.

Over the past three decades, cancer deaths have dropped by 32 percent, thanks to medical advancements. Despite these overall improvements, however, disparities in cancer rates and outcomes are stark due to historical and structural racism that continues in the U.S. Disparities are gaps that occur in the prevalence, treatment, survival and mortality rates of cancers.

Across almost every cancer type, survival rates are lower for Black people than for White people. This is especially evident when it comes to breast cancer. While Black women have 4 percent lower incidence of breast cancer than White women, their breast cancer death rate is 41 percent higher, according to research from the American Cancer Society.

Tracie Kimbrough, a 59 year-old Black woman who’s a breast cancer survivor, knows what this data means in real life. Kimbrough decided to get screened due to the prevalence of cancer in her family history. Her grandmother had been diagnosed when Kimbrough was a child, but they avoided talking about cancer. “You just didn’t mention that word. You didn’t talk about it,” Kimbrough said. “It was almost like there was so much shame attached to it.”

“You have to ask yourself, why is that such a big difference? 40 percent; that’s a lot,” Kimbrough said of the breast cancer disparities between Black women and White women. “It’s the disparities in medical care, it’s access to affordable healthcare, it’s access to affordable medical insurance, it’s an implicit bias in the medical industry, it is systemic racism. It is the microaggressions that people have to deal with every single day. And at some point you just say: I’m tired of it.”

The American Cancer Society is working on closing the gaps in cancer rates and outcomes — and challenging the root causes — through advocacy, research, and programs to support diversity among researchers. Across the country, The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network is advocating for public policies to reduce disparities, including fighting for healthcare access, tobacco control policies, and supporting early detection programs for breast and cervical cancer screenings for low-income women.

When it comes to cancer research, disparities extend to who is represented in healthcare and science. According to the National Science Foundation, Black, indigenous, and Latinx people are collectively underrepresented in health-related sciences. Further, when it comes to research grants from the National Institutes of Health, just 7 percent of applicants were from an underrepresented group, with 2 percent identifying as African American or Black.

Through the Diversity in Cancer Research program, the American Cancer Society is supporting a $12 million investment in four historically Black colleges and universities to fund programs that increase cancer researchers from underrepresented groups.

Kimbrough is also working to combat disparities. She’s a mentor to individuals who are newly diagnosed and helps to raise awareness about disparities that impact her community.

Learn more about how the American Cancer Society is closing the gaps in cancer rates and outcomes.

*A week after this video was filmed, Tracie’s sister passed away from metastatic breast cancer.

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