For decades, black Americans have died from cancer at higher rates than whites—but a new study has found the gap is shrinking and has been all but eliminated in certain age groups.
Quitting smoking, a risk factor for various cancers, was a major factor: More black men are quitting smoking than ever, and fewer black youth are picking up the habit than young white people are.
According to data published Thursday by the American Cancer society, the disparity is narrowing for lung, prostate, and colorectal cancer—three of the four deadliest cancers for this group—and is at a standstill for breast cancer. And for black men under 50 and black women over 70, the mortality gap has essentially disappeared.
African-Americans still have the highest overall death rate and lowest survival rate for most cancers compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. Since the 1960s, cancer diagnosis rates for African-Americans have exceeded the rates for whites, peaking in the 1990s. In 2019, approximately 202,260 new cancer cases and 73,030 cancer deaths are expected to occur among black patients in the United States.
“Socioeconomic status, which is strongly correlated with race in this country, is the most critical factor driving these racial inequalities,” David Sampson, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, said in a statement.
Part of it, too, is greater access to care and advances in treatment, and broader dissemination in screening for early detection, Carol DeSantis, principal scientist at the American Cancer Society told The Daily Beast. “The Affordable Care Act was an important step in expanding access to screening and treatment for all groups,” she said.
DeSantis said that for some cancers, like breast cancer, historically the rates in white and black people were similar. But as new treatments were developed, and were more widely available to white women and members of the upper socioeconomic class, the death gap widened.
“For some cancers, the risk is similar but the death rate is still higher. So what that really reflects is different and less access to high quality care for black women.”
The narrowing of black-white disparities is striking in some age groups. For men ages 40 to 49, the cancer death rate was 102 percent higher in blacks than in whites in 1990. By 2016, the rate had shrunk to just 17 percent higher.
Overall, the increased risk of overall cancer death in blacks compared with whites dropped by 28 percent in men and seven percent in women in the last 16 years.
“Seeing the substantial progress made over the past several decades in reducing black-white disparities in cancer mortality is incredibly gratifying,” said Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., interim chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. “To continue this progress, we need to expand access to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment for all Americans.”