Understanding Cancer Disparities

Cancer is a disease that can affect anyone, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Many social structures and practices can limit a person’s access to health care needed to prevent, treat, and survive cancer. These obstacles may include racism, discrimination, poverty, lack of access to healthy and affordable foods, low quality education and housing, and jobs with inadequate pay.

When the quality of health care differs between people because of racism or other forms of discrimination based on their income, health insurance coverage, race/ethnicity, gender identity, age, disability status, health insurance coverage, or where they live, it’s called a health disparity.

Health care disparities can affect every step of cancer care — from prevention and screening to the quality of life after cancer treatment, which means disparities in care can affect who develops and dies from cancer.

Cancer Disparities Facts & Figures in Brief

ACS Cancer Prevention Studies

Spotlight on ACS Research Publications & Podcasts

The American Cancer Society (ACS) employs full-time researchers and funds scientists across the United States who relentlessly search for answers to help us better understand cancer, including cancer health disparities. Here are some highlights of their work.


More Information About Cancer in LGBTQ People May Help

“We are quantifying cancer among people of diverse sexual orientations including heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian women. Additionally, we are identifying risk factors for cancer that are unique to bisexual and lesbian women, including those linked to societal stigma and discrimination. Our findings are highlighting new avenues for health equity and interventions for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.” —Brittany M. Charlton, ScD

See the highlight about Dr. Charlton's published study.



I Can PIC Tool Improves Cancer Patients’ Insurance Choices

“We developed a web-based decision aid, Improving Cancer Patients’ Insurance Choices (I Can PIC), and evaluated it in a randomized trial. I Can PIC provides health insurance information, supports patients through managing care costs, offers a list of financial and emotional support resources, and provides a personalized cost estimate of annual health care expenses across plan types.” —Mary Politi, PhD

See the highlight about Dr. Politi's published study.



1 in 3 Women with Early-Stage Breast Cancer Delay Chemotherapy After Surgery in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa

“Reducing the growing burden of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa requires coordinated efforts and commitments from the local governments, national and international private and public health agencies, and philanthropists.”—Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD   


See the highlight about Dr. Jemal's published study.



Community Health Advisors in Church

“We train lay individuals in the churches to serve as community health advisors and so these are the regular folks who are in the church, they don’t necessarily have a health background or specific health training. They go through a 13-module training and certification process so that they can become and play the role of the community health advisor in the church. This is the peer that people trust and go to for cancer info . . . they conduct a series of educational workshops.”—Cheryl Knott, PhD

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Knott



Achieving Cancer Health Equity in the Muslim American Community

“We’ve found this in some of our participants—the belief that God is punishing the person for past deeds by giving them cancer. And this is not only unsettling for the patient; it’s unsettling for providers. So how do you approach this and not offend the person? And the potential for the person to draw meaning from the cancer experience. How do you turn it around from persecution to an opportunity for meaning-making?”—Mark Lazenby, PhD, APRN, FAAN 

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Lazenby and Aasim Padela, MD, also an ACS grantee.


Extramural Discovery Grants in Cancer Disparities Research

The American Cancer Society funds scientists who conduct research about cancer at medical schools, universities, research institutes, and hospitals throughout the United States. We use a rigorous and independent peer review process to select the most innovative research projects proposals to fund. 

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Total Grants in Effect for Disparities Research as of August 1, 2021

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Total Grants Funding for Disparities Research as of August 1, 2021

Advocating for Cancer Equity

Disparities Research Informs Advocacy and Policy Actions

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) is the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society. Its role is to support evidence-based policy and legislative solutions designed to eliminate cancer as a major health problem. American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers collaborate with ACS CAN staff to explore how and why certain groups of people in the US are not benefitting from health care services such as cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment.

ACS CAN is attacking disparities by changing or adding new evidence-based public health policies at the local, state, and federal levels. The goal of ACS CAN is to reduce these disparities and improve health outcomes for all US population groups regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or zip code.

For more information, visit the ACSCAN web site at www.fightcancer.org

Reducing Barriers

Patient Enrollment in Cancer Clinical Trials 

“Medicaid recipients in many states . . . are essentially barred from enrolling in clinical trials. ACS CAN developed some model legislation over the past year, and our state colleagues have worked to get that introduced. And we actually got legislation passed in three states—Colorado, Minnesota, and Illinois—which would require their state Medicaid plans to cover those routine care costs of cancer clinical trials."
                 —Mark Fleury, PhD, Policy Principal at ACS CAN

Listen to podcast

Health Equity at ACS

We’re Learning How to Better Integrate Health Equity into Our Organizational Practices and Culture

American Cancer Society (ACS) researchers and the researchers we fund through extramural grants are working to better understand what health disparities exist, what causes them, and how to decrease them. 

Our research shows that while overall cancer mortality rates are dropping, populations who are marginalized are bearing a disproportionate burden of preventable death and disease. If we are to further reduce deaths from cancer and achieve our mortality goal of reducing cancer deaths by 40% by 2035, we need to make sure everyone has the ability to benefit from the advances in the prevention and treatment of cancer.

A partnership and 3-year grant (2021 to 2023) with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is helping us do just that. RWJF is the nation's largest philanthropic organization dedicated solely to health in the United States. They’re committed to working with others to build a “Culture of Health” that provides everyone with a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible.

The purpose of RWJF’s partnership with ACS and our nonprofit, nonpartisan affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) is to advance the culture of health equity, integrate it into our organization, and make it a shared value for ACS and ACS CAN volunteers, staff, partners, and the community at the national, state, and local levels. We are doing this through trainings and other educational opportunities for volunteers and staff to deepen their health equity knowledge and skills. 

We are also piloting Health Equity Community Projects, a collaboration between ACS, ACS CAN, and community partners in select cohorts across the nation. The goal of this partnership is to explore, identify, and implement community-driven solutions that address specific social and structural factors around cancer disparities.

More About Our Cancer Health Disparities Work