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The Cancer Burden in African Americans: Our Expert’s Take

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Health disparities are a major research focus for American Cancer Society epidemiologist Carol DeSantis, MPH. Although she often looks at breast cancer trends, she is also the lead author of a new report that reveals some important cancer disparities that persist in African Americans.

The report, titled Cancer Statistics for African Americans, 2016, appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. A version for consumers, Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2016-2018, can be found on

We sat down with DeSantis to get her perspective on the new research, which she conducted with her colleagues in the Society’s surveillance and health services research group.

What are some important differences between this report and the previous version, Cancer Facts & Figures for African Americans 2013-3014?

In this report, which has the most up-to-date information, the racial disparity in the overall cancer death rates is narrowing. Over the last decade, death rates dropped faster in blacks than in whites. However, rates remain 24% higher in black men and 14% higher in black women compared to white men and women.

Colorectal cancer (CRC) death rates have been significantly higher in black men than in white men since 2005. Any insight on the lack of progress here?

Death rates have remained about 50% higher in black men than white men since 2005. Although CRC death rates are declining, the drop has been slower in black men than white men (2.5% vs 3.0%) per year over the past decade. These trends reflect slower uptake of colorectal cancer screening among blacks, as well as differences in access to high-quality treatment for colorectal cancer. Numerous studies have shown that black colorectal cancer patients are less likely to receive recommended surgery and chemotherapy.

Why do you think death rates for all cancers combined have been dropping faster for blacks than whites?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both black men and women, so the overall cancer death rates largely reflect trends from this one cancer. Lung cancer death rates have dropped faster in blacks than in whites largely because of the rapid decline in smoking among blacks over the last 4 decades. Black youth also have lower smoking rates than whites. If these trends continue, it is expected that lung cancer rates will continue to drop and the racial disparity for lung cancer should be eliminated over the next several decades.

What kind of impact you hope the report’s findings will have?

I hope this report brings attention to the disproportionate cancer burden among blacks in the US. There has been so much progress in cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment, but not everyone in this country has benefited from those advances.