Race and Ethnicity as Cancer Risk Factors

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As we acknowledge National Minority Cancer Awareness Week, it's an appropriate time to pause to look at why race and ethnicity might be risk factors for cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of cancer (those who are diagnosed with the disease) in the United States is highest in African-Americans followed by Caucasians, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and American Natives, and deaths (those who die from the disease) are highest in African-Americans followed by Caucasians, American Natives, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
The chart below includes data from the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society on the three most common types of cancer: lung, prostate and breast.

  Lung Cancer - Men and Women Prostate Cancer - Men Breast Cancer - Women
Highest Incidence Rate African-American males African- American White, non-Hispanic
Lowest Incidence Rate Hispanic females American Indian/Natives Korean American
Highest Death Rate African-American males African- American African-American
Lowest Death Rate Hispanic females Asian / Pacific Islander Chinese American

Recent research indicates that there are many factors, including ethnicity, that may contribute to the development and survival rates for some cancers.

Some of the factors are:

•    Lifestyle behaviors encompassing diet, physical exercise, sun exposure, smoking, and alcohol use and sexual practice behaviors
•    Socioeconomic factors including education and income level, access to health insurance, and routine medical screening and services 
•    Genetic factors involving inherited genes and a family  history of certain diseases
•    Cultural factors involving practices, beliefs and in some instances mistrust of the health care system, which may prevent some from seeking preventive screening services 
•    Age, which supports the concept that cancer is a disease largely associated with aging; so the longer one lives, the greater that person's risk for developing the disease

The question is often asked, "Why can't we cure cancer?" One reason is that there isn't just "one" cancer. There are more than 200 types of cancer and treatment for one type might not work for another. With the existence of so many different cancers it's evident that many risk factors, including extenuating factors associated with the different racial and ethnic groups, play a role in the development and survival of some cancers.

It's also evident that cancer is not an inevitable fact of life. In many cases, it can be prevented or detected at its earliest and most curable stage. People could protect themselves by following these simple steps:

•    Know the risks and ask questions
•    Make healthy lifestyle choices
•    Access health care services, including preventative screenings and health care events

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