Cancer in Our Communities

African Americans and Cancer

Despite overall improvements in care across all races over the years, African Americans still suffer the greatest burden for the most common types of cancer. At Fred Hutch, we're determined to increase awareness of prevention, early detection and treatment tools that can help everyone in our community to lead healthier lives.

African Americans had the highest death rate and shortest survival time for most cancers of any racial and ethnic group in the nation as of 2005, the newest data available, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Although the overall difference in cancer death rates among racial groups is decreasing, the death rate for all cancers combined in 2005 continued to be 33 percent higher in African American men and 16 percent higher in African American women than in Caucasian men and women, respectively. African American men also had the highest rates of cancer development of any race from 2001 to 2005.

The reasons for these differences are complex. Inequalities that continue to exist among racial groups in a wide variety of areas—including work, income, education, housing and overall standard of living—likely play a role. Studies have shown that barriers to high-quality health care and racial discrimination may also be to blame. Some research has also suggested that biology and genetics may explain why African American breast, ovarian and prostate cancer patients tend to die earlier than patients of other races, even with the same medical treatment and living situations.

African Americans and prostate cancer   

African American men have the highest prostate cancer rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States and are more than twice as likely as Caucasian men to die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. Scientists still don't have a full understanding of why these differences exist.

Do certain genes play a role in this greater rate of prostate-cancer incidence and deaths in African Americans? That's the major question our researchers have been working to address through their leadership of the Prostate Cancer Genetic Research Study, also known as PROGRESS. Learn more about how your family—regardless of race—may be able to get involved in this important study.

The American Cancer Society recommends that African Americans start discussing prostate cancer early detection tests with their doctors beginning at age 45. Men with several close relatives diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age should have these discussions at age 40. Learn more about prostate cancer prevention, symptoms and treatment through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, our patient-care partner.

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African Americans and breast cancer   

Overall, African American women are diagnosed with breast cancer at a 10 percent lower rate than Caucasian women, yet African American women were 37 percent more likely to die from the disease, according to the latest data from American Cancer Society. In addition, African American women younger than 40 are more likely to develop the disease than white women of the same age.

Our researchers have found that breast cancer tumors in African-American women were almost always more aggressive than those from whites, and they are investigating whether genetic factors may be to blame.

What's your personal risk for breast cancer? Use this tool provided by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to find out more.

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African Americans and lung cancer   

Lung cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in African American men and women, according to U.S. government data. Lung cancer was 36 percent more common in African American men than in Caucasian men but occurred at about the same rate for African American and Caucasian women during between 2001 and 2005, the latest data available, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

One way to reduce your risk for developing lung cancer is to refrain from smoking, which causes most cancers of the lung and other related areas, including the lip and esophagus. Our researchers are studying ways to encourage people, particularly teenagers, to drop this unhealthy habit.

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African Americans and colorectal cancer   

Colorectal cancer occurs more frequently in African American men and women than in any other racial group in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Death rates from the disease are also higher in African Americans than in other racial groups.

It's unclear why these differences exist, but access to and attitudes toward prevention and treatment may offer some explanation. Several studies have found that African American patients are more likely to be diagnosed after the cancer has spread beyond the colon, making it more difficult to treat successfully. Another study found that African Americans were half as likely as Caucasians to have undergone colonoscopy screening, even after accounting for differences in education, income, and health insurance status. In addition, African Americans with colorectal cancer are less likely than Caucasian patients to receive recommended surgical treatment and therapies.

Fortunately, colorectal cancer is highly treatable if caught early enough. If you're older than 50 or at risk for colorectal cancer, you should ask your doctor about getting screened—it could save your life. Learn more about your personal risk for colorectal cancer and steps to protect your health at End Colon Cancer Now.

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