Cancer Disparities ACS Research Highlights

The American Cancer Society (ACS) believes everyone should have a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer. That belief guides the ACS to conduct and support research to help understand cancer inequalities and create strategies for overcoming them. 

Why ACS Is Committed to Improving Health Equity

Watch this video to witness cancer disparities and cancer care inequities in real life.

To learn more about the American Cancer Society's (ACS) focus on ending health disparities, see:

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.

A health disparity is when the quality of health care differs between people because of discrimination based on:

  • Age
  • Disability status
  • Health insurance coverage
  • Gender identity
  • Geography, where a person lives
  • Income
  • Race or ethnicity (racism) 

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.

New Grant Program Paves the Way to a Future of More Diverse Cancer Researchers 

Last summer, Extramural Discovery Science funded the first American Cancer Society DICR Internship program at 8 universities. 

This 10-week summer cancer research experience aims to increase diversity and inclusion in the cancer workforce for under-represented minorities who are rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors with an interest in any STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline.

Learn more about the ACS Diversity in Cancer Research (DICR) Internship program

Spotlight on ACS Research Publications

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.

The State of Cancer Disparities in the United States

“Despite some progress in recent decades, cancer disparities are still a major issue in the United States, and they may further widen because of increasing costs of novel treatments and advanced medical technologies.

“Much more work needs to be done to enhance health equity and mitigate cancer disparities.” —Farhad Islami, MD, PhD

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


When More People Qualify for Medicaid, More Survive Cancer 

“We consistently found a link between lower Medicaid eligibility limits and worse survival after a cancer diagnosis. And that was true whether the cancer was found at an early or late stage.

“This could be explained for multiple reasons. Having health insurance may make receiving guideline-based treatment easier to receive and complete and may improve access to timely care as well as specialized survivorship care, psychosocial care, and end-of-life and hospice care.”
                                                             —Jingxuan Zhao, MPH

See the highlight about Jingxuan Zhao's published study.


Clinical Trial for Communication App About Cancer-Treatment Cost

“Research has shown that certain groups of people are more at risk for experiencing financial toxicity: African American/Black populations, people with limited incomes, and those younger than age 65. We developed the DISCO app to help decrease that risk for such patients in Detroit.

“Our goal is to prompt high-quality and timely discussions about costs between oncologists and patients and to improve patient knowledge and self-efficacy surrounding treatment costs. We also want to increase referrals to social workers and financial navigators, who can help cancer patients better predict and manage the costs of their care.”
                                                                                —Lauren Hamel, PhD

See the highlight about Dr. Hamel's study.


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? . . . 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.


We Fund Cancer Researchers Across the US

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. 

ACS Cancer Prevention Studies

CPS-II and CPS-3 Participants Allow for Ongoing Disparities Studies About Cancer Risk & Survival 

Epidemiology researchers in the ACS Population Science department continually analyze data from the Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II) and CPS-3 to better understand factors that contribute to disparities.

Currently, we’re looking at how:

  • Living in a rural community affects the social determinants of healthy eating and active living. And how together these factors contribute to the risk of developing or dying from cancer.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has affected diet quality, physical activity, mental health, and cancer screening practices in different populations. Over time, our epidemiologists will be able to examine ongoing health effects related to COVID-19 in the general population as well as in cancer survivors.
  • Using technology to distribute evidence-based behavior-change interventions to medically underserved populations. These include programs such how to stop smoking and and how to increase physical activity. Their participation can help reduce the risk for developing cancer and improve survival if they develop it. 

We’re also adding new questions to the 2021 survey that will help us understand perceived discrimination and its impact on health by asking participants where, why, and when they have felt discrimination.

Exercise & Sitting Time Vary by Race & Birthplace

A CPS-3 Study

“Most population studies that examine risk factors for developing cancer, like physical inactivity, only allow participants to select from very broad racial/ethnicity categories, largely ‘Black, white, and other.’ But there’s so much diversity in each of these categories – especially ‘other’ – that needs to be identified and studied.

close up portrait of Erika Rees Punia

“With CPS-3, we allow participants to select from more specific racial/ethnic groups. By doing so, we found some disparities in physical activity related to participants’ race and birthplace. Other scientists can use our results to identify demographic groups for future research to explore group-specific barriers and facilitators of physical activity and to create culturally tailored messaging, programs, and policy work.” —Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH, Principal Scientist, Epidemiology & Behavioral Research, ACS

Cancer Disparities Facts & Figures in Brief

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, 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